The short answer to this is that the UEFA Champions League is the club championship of Europe, and probably therefore the most prestigious football competition in the world, other than the World Cup.
Also, somewhat strangely, it’s not a league; it’s a tournament. But before I explain more, let’s do a little history.
The whole reason people agreed on a set of rules for football — first forming the Football Association in England in 1863 — was so they could have balanced competitions. In the early days it was just parts of England, but then they spread to the whole country — and meanwhile, the British Empire was spreading the game all over the world, where other regional associations and competitions were set up.
(By the way, the word Association is where the word soccer comes from — yes, from British people.)
Next came national leagues, starting in England with the Football League in 1888. Clubs would also go on tour, to play “friendlies” against clubs in other countries, but these were not part of a real competition. (Random fact: the famous black and white stripes of Juventus in Italy resulted from a 1903 shirt sent by by Notts County FC, who now languish in the fourth tier of English football. And I’ve been to Notts County.)
Another idea that countries adopted was to have one big tournament for every single club in the country, no matter which league or level they play in. This, in England, is the FA Cup. Every country has at least one version of this; England also has the League Cup, League Trophy and others.
Eventually it occurred to everybody to have the best players in each country form a team and play a team from another country. This, of course, led to the World Cup, first held in the 1930s and, other than a couple breaks for World War II, every four years since.
The World Cup is run by FIFA, an international crime syndicate that “governs” world football — sort of like how the Corleone Family sold olive oil. FIFA, much of whose leadership is under indictment in the US, is divided into
turfs regions, and within each region there are three big competitions:
- A qualifying tournament to send some members to the World Cup every four years
- A nation v nation tournament for the regional championship; in Europe this is in even non-World-Cup years
- A tournament for clubs within that region, held each year.
What we all call the Champions League is the third of those for UEFA, the European region of FIFA.
A little reference for my American readers: The US is part of the FIFA region CONCACAF, which I won’t even try to translate because nobody else does. Within that, we have World Cup qualifying (a sore topic for Yanks at the moment), the Gold Cup tournament of nations every odd year, and the CONCACAF Champions League, which has been won by US teams exactly twice in 54 years. It’s usually a Mexican team that wins it.
How the Champions League Works
So, how does a team qualify for this European showdown? Well, in the old days you just had to win your national league. But then TV came along said, “Ya know, more teams means more games, which means more money.” So there were more teams.
It’s been a long and convoluted process, but this is how it works today: Each country in Europe sends one team to the Champions League. But there are a ton of countries, so starting in the late summer, teams from the “minnow” countries like Gibraltar, Estonia and the Faroe Islands play a few qualifying rounds.
The bigger countries are all ranked by some mysterious FIFA system that no one understands — much like nobody could really follow the plot of The Godfather III — resulting in some countries getting more slots than others. England, for example, gets four, which means the top four teams in the Premier League go into the next year’s Champions League. This is simply referred to as “Getting into Europe,” and it means a crap ton of money — from television, ticket sales and merchandise sales — except for Arsenal, who always lose pretty much as soon as they can. It also helps a club sign bigger players, who want to play in the Champions League — again, except for Arsenal, who seem allergic to spending any of the quadrillions of Pounds they are sitting on.
By the way, team #5 in England goes into the second-rate European competition, the Europa League. Sometimes #6 does, as well. Also, whoever wins the Europa League gets into the next year’s Champions League. (Are you starting to miss the nice and simple American ways?)
The fourth-place English team actually goes into the third round of Champions League qualifying, but the top three go straight into the first major phase of the competition, the Group Stage. Here, 32 clubs are divided into eight groups of four— again by a mysterious FIFA process of rankings — and over a few months they all play the rest of their group twice, once at each stadium. You get three points for a win and one for a draw. These matches typically happen on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, since national leagues usually play on weekends. You’ll hear these matches referred to as “European nights,” even when they are in England.
When the Group stages are over, the top two from each group go on to the Knockout Stage. There is no bracket here, but they take all the group winners and put them in one basket, then all the second-place finishers in another basket, and each “tie” consists of one team from each basket playing each other twice, first at the runner-up and then at the winner.
These ties are decided by total (aggregate) goals, with the first tiebreaker being “away goals.” Somebody decided that it’s harder to score a goal away from home than at home, so as an example, there was an incredibly famous tie between Chelsea of England and Barcelona of Spain about 10 years ago. The game at Barcelona finished 0-0, and Chelsea scored early in the second to go up 1-0 on aggregate.
Late in the game, after a series of horrible referee decisions almost all went against Chelsea, Barcelona banged in a last-minute goal to level … I mean win the tie, 1-1. It’s a weird thing for Americans to get used to. It’s also a heck of a video to watch:
After this round, which gets you down to the quarterfinals, it’s all random as to who plays whom. Each round is the same until the Final is played, generally in late May in front of a massive crowd of corporate tycoons and FIFA dons and wiseguys. Oh, and a handful of fans from each club.
Real Madrid have won this thing more often than anyone else, including the last two. Liverpool, with five, lead England in European titles, something they like to remind Manchester United (3 titles) of with a few different songs.
The 2017-18 Champions League
Last season, the top of the Premier League table looked like this:
So Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham got into this year’s Group Stage, as did Manchester United because they won the Europa League. Liverpool had to go into qualifying. And incredibly, bucking a strong recent trend, they all made it into the Knockout Stage.
Starting February 13, you’ll see Tottenham play Juventus of Italy, Manchester City play Basel of Switzerland, Liverpool play Porto of Portugal, Manchester United play Sevilla of Spain, and Chelsea play — guess who — Barcelona.
If two or three English teams win, then the first half of April could well see two of them playing each other in the quarterfinals.
The final is May 26 in Kiev.
Why to Watch the Champions League
For fans, watching the Champions League offers probably the highest-level soccer played anywhere in the world. Several European leagues compete to be considered the best in the world, but if you take the best of all those and make them play games with all the stakes on the line, you get drama and intensity and attention like nowhere else.
The World Cup exceeds it for drama and pageantry and worldwide attention, but those teams only practice together for a a few weeks. These Champions League clubs, packed with international stars who represent their country, play together all year, taking their game to a whole different level.
All of this — the history, the level of play, the intensity, the attention, the glamour — make the Champions League, for most people, the very apex of soccer watching.