Real Madrid, Liverpool and AC Milan have been among the dominant forces in European football
Sixty-five years ago this month, modern-day European club competition was born.
Its father was Gabriel Hanot, a former French international who became the football editor of the sports newspaper L’Equipe, a platform he used to promote his idea of a continental cup competition.
So, in April 1955, representatives of 18 European clubs – inspired by the timeless sporting curiosity to know who is best – met in Paris to agree that a European Champions’ Cup should be created.
Despite the grumblings of the English Football League, who advised their champions Chelsea not to take part, the tournament quickly gained momentum. Scotland’s Hibernian received no such “advice”, and so in mid-October 1955 their draw with Germany’s Rot-Weiss Essen was the first European Cup match to be played in Britain.
Soon one tournament was not enough. In 1961 the Cup Winners’ Cup burst into life and another, the previously ad-hoc Inter Cities Fairs Cup, became a properly administered annual competition.
With growth has come change: in 1992 the European Cup grew into the Champions League. In 1971 the Uefa Cup replaced the Fairs Cup, only to be reformatted again as the Europa League in 2009. The Cup Winners’ Cup has been consigned to history, and in 2021 Uefa’s new Europa Conference League is due to begin.
For 65 years planes, trains and automobiles have transported players, fans and reporters across borders from Reykjavik to Rijeka, from Tromso to Tbilisi, with barely a pause – until now.
With planes grounded and grounds empty, let’s take stock of 65 years of action and ask that question which inspired Hanot: who’s best?
The scoring system
Clearly any scoring system designed to create a European league table is open to debate. Other algorithms are available! But the following system seems a fair way of calculating the all-time European elite.
The European Cup or Champions League has always been the premier competition and so winning it should be rewarded with the most points.
Winners: 12 points
Runners-up: 6 points
Beaten semi-finalist: 3 points
Should a Champions League win be on a par with a European Cup success? Many would argue that the European Cup was much easier to win than the Champions League, and they would probably be right. Liverpool, for example, played only seven games to win the European Cup in 1978 – they played 13 matches to win the Champions League in 2019.
However, qualifying to play in the European Cup – when only the champion club of each country and the current European Cup holders were admitted – was far more difficult than qualifying for the Champions League, with its multiple entries from the more successful nations.
For example, such was the dominance of Real Madrid in Spain that even Barcelona had competed in the European Cup only four times before they first won the trophy in 1992, yet Barca have qualified for the Champions League on all but three occasions since.
So how to score the other cups? The Fairs Cup, Uefa Cup, Europa League and Cup Winners’ Cup were all broadly equal in status. The Cup Winners’ Cup was initially heralded by Uefa as the superior competition, but the larger number of clubs entering the Uefa Cup arguably made that harder to win.
Winners: 8 points
Runners-up: 4 points
Beaten semi-finalist: 2 points
In 1972 Ajax played Rangers in the first European Super Cup, a competition unsanctioned by Uefa until the following season. Initially this was a two-legged affair between the European Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup holders of the previous season.
Occasionally the Super Cup did not take place at all; Bayern Munich and Liverpool pulled out in 1974 and 1981 respectively, claiming fixture congestion. Now it’s an early-season taster for the action to come and has found its place in the European calendar.
Winner: 1 point
Since 1956, a total of 172 clubs have reached a European semi-final and so make it to the full list. Germany has the biggest representation with 24 clubs featured. England is second place with 20 clubs, followed by Spain (16), Italy (15), France (12) and Belgium (11).
English clubs would have achieved even more but for the five-year ban on them playing in Europe which followed the 1985 Heysel disaster. This was extended to a sixth season for Liverpool, but perhaps it impacted most of all upon Everton. Howard Kendall’s exciting team had won both the English title and the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1985 but were denied the opportunity to test themselves in Europe again.
The top 10
Top of the pile – Real Madrid. They won the first five editions of the European Cup and four of the past six Champions League titles, so it’s no surprise the thirteen-time European champions top the poll.
Second placed Barca’s total of five European Cup and Champions League titles may be modest compared to Real’s – but Barcelona won the Cup Winners’ Cup four times and the Fairs Cup three times, making them the most prolific winners of both those competitions.
Third placed Bayern Munich may have won fewer European Cups than AC Milan (five compared to seven), but in addition to their 12 European finals, the Germans have lost 14 times in semi-finals – agonising for them, but it earns Bayern enough points to edge the Italians into fourth place.
Bayern – with Real Madrid and Ajax – are also one of only three clubs to have lifted the European Cup in three successive seasons, while AC Milan’s total of 11 European Cup or Champions League finals is second only to Real Madrid.
In fifth place, Liverpool are England’s most successful club in European competition. Their 2019 win was the sixth time they have been champions of Europe, and they boast three Uefa Cup victories too.
Only Real Madrid and Barcelona have reached more European finals than Juventus, who are in sixth place. However, the Italians have lost 10 of the 16 finals in which they have played, including each of their past five finals in the Champions League.
Like Juventus, seventh-placed Ajax have won all three European trophies in their various guises. That’s a feat matched by only four other clubs – Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Manchester United.
Eighth-placed Inter Milan won back-to-back European Cups in the mid-1960s but waited 44 years to be champions of Europe again. They also reached four Uefa Cup Finals in the 1990s, winning three.
In ninth are Manchester United. Who knows how much more they might have achieved but for the desperate tragedy of the Munich air disaster? The Busby Babes were travelling from Belgrade to Manchester via Munich on 6 February 1958, having just successfully reached their second European Cup semi-final
Had the team survived, they might have beaten AC Milan in that semi-final and perhaps become the first British side to be crowned European champions.
Uefa invited United to compete in the European Cup the following season, only for the authorities at the English Football League to stubbornly refuse to allow them to take part. Busby and United would have to wait 10 more years to win the European Cup.
Atletico Madrid are the only club to make the top 10 without ever being European champions. In 1974 they became the first, and only, side to lose the European Cup final in a replay – the first of three defeats in the final of that competition. They may yet put that right in 2020.
But perhaps Atletico are only just beginning to learn about losing finals? Spare a thought for Benfica. The Portuguese club won their first European Cup in 1961, and promptly won it again the following season. Since that 1962 success Benfica have reached eight more European finals – only to lose every time.