Champions League 101 Beginner’s Guide: How it Works

The UEFA Champions League (UCL) is the most prestigious and coveted tournament in European soccer. Contested between the best teams in Europe each year, the competition has delivered many magical moments over its 65-year history, and the final alone attracts around 400 million viewers worldwide, over 200 million more than the Super Bowl.


Founded in 1955 as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, the tournament has undergone multiple stages of evolution and development to become what it is today. Initially, the competition began solely as a knockout tournament for the winners of the top-flight leagues in 16 European countries. In 1992, however, the competition changed its name to the Champions League and added a round-robin group stage before the knockout rounds to allow for as many as four teams from each country to qualify for and participate in the competition.

For the first five years of the competition’s existence, Real Madrid was the sole champion of Europe, dominating the tournament every year thanks to the likes of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás. Madrid’s reign finally came to an end when Benfica won two titles in a row before A.C. Milan and Inter Milan etched their names into the UCL’s history book. Overall, 22 different teams, representing 10 separate European countries, have won the competition. Real Madrid holds the record for most titles with 13 overall.

UCL Winners List

TeamCountryTitlesSeasons Won
Real MadridSpain131956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018
Milan (A.C. Milan)Italy71963, 1969, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, 2007
LiverpoolEngland61977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005, 2019
Bayern MunichGermany51974, 1975, 1976, 2001, 2013
BarcelonaSpain51992, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2015
AjaxNetherlands41971, 1972, 1973, 1995
Internazionale (Inter Milan)Italy31964, 1965, 2010
Manchester UnitedEngland31968, 1999, 2008
JuventusItaly21985, 1996
BenficaPortugal21961, 1962
Nottingham ForestEngland21979, 1980
PortoPortugal21987, 2004
Steaua BucureștiRomania11986
Borussia DortmundGermany11997
Aston VillaEngland11982
PSV EindhovenNetherlands11988
Red Star BelgradeSerbia11991

Champions of the Last 10 Years

YearTeamRunner Up
2009/10InternazionaleBayern Munich
2010/11BarcelonaManchester United
2011/12ChelseaBayern Munich
2012/13Bayern MunichBorussia Dortmund
2013/14Real MadridAtlético Madrid
2015/16Real MadridAtlético Madrid
2016/17Real MadridJuventus
2017/18Real MadridLiverpool
2018/19LiverpoolTottenham Hotspur


Multiple rounds of qualification take place before the group stage of the competition. These rounds ultimately determine the six teams from the European countries ranked 11-55 by UEFA that make it into the group stage. UEFA ranks these countries, or member associations, in order of the quality and difficulty within each league. Therefore, the member associations ranked 1-10 include the likes of England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands, although the rankings also fluctuate according to changes in a league’s standards. The remaining 26 teams hail from the top 10 member associations, and the champions of these 10 leagues, along with the runners-up of countries 1-6, qualify for the group stage. The third and fourth place teams from the countries ranked 1-4 also qualify for the group stage. Finally, the last two teams that qualify are the teams that won the Champions League and the Europa League the previous season. The highest number of teams from one country allowed in the competition is five. This would happen if a team that finished outside of the top four in a country ranked 1-4 won the Champions League or the Europa League the previous season. If two different teams, both of which finished outside the top four in the same country ranked 1-4, win the Champions League and the Europa League, the fourth-place finishing team in that country does not qualify for the Champions League due to the fact that six teams from one country cannot qualify for the UCL.

Group Stage

In the group stage of the competition, the 32 qualifying teams are divided into eight groups of four, titled Groups A through H. Teams from the same country cannot be in the same group. Each team plays the other three teams in its group twice, both home and away, earning three points for a win, one point for a draw, and no points for a loss. The winner and the runner up of each group then advance to the Round of 16, while the team that finishes in third drops down to the Europa League. The group stage lasts from September to December.

Knockout Rounds

The knockout rounds begin in February with the Round of 16, in which the winner of each group in the group stage plays the runner up of another group. Teams from the same member association cannot be drawn against each other, and the round is composed of two-legged ties (home and away) that take into account away goals if the aggregate score after both legs is a draw. If the number of away goals is also level, the teams continue into extra time in the second leg and will go to penalties if still tied.

The quarterfinals and the semifinals are also two-legged ties that use the away goals rule, but the draws for these rounds are random and do not take into account the team’s member association. Finally, the last two teams meet in the single-match final in May in that season’s designated stadium.

Prize Money

Besides the prestige of the competition, another significant incentive to qualify for the Champions League is the prize money awarded to each team. Qualifying for the group stage of the tournament earns a team nearly $18 million, which is a significant amount of money to most teams in Europe. Qualification for the competition also opens the door for many other opportunities to win prize money, bonuses, or money from television, including just drawing a match in the group stage. Making it out of the group stage of the tournament guarantees at least an $11 million payout, and making it through every knockout round before ultimately winning the competition would grant a team just under $100 million.


The most well known and distinctive characteristic of the Champions League is its anthem. Written by British composer Tony Britten and adapted from a 1727 coronation anthem by George Frideric Handel, the Champions League anthem is a song brimful of pride, joy, and honor. The lyrics are in English, German, and French and signify the greatness of the teams involved in the competition. It plays before and after every Champions League game.

Greatest Moments of the Last 20 Years

Although there are innumerable incredible highlights in the history of the Champions League, as the level of competition has increased, so have the shining moments. Here are five of the greatest Champions League moments and achievements in the past 20 years.

5. Injury Time Treble Winners
The 1998/99 Champions League final delivered one of the most dramatic moments in soccer’s history. Having gone down 1-0 to Bayern Munich in the 6th minute, Manchester United couldn’t grab an equalized before the 90 minutes were up. However, when all hope seemed lost, Teddy Sheringham equalized a minute into injury time before Ole Gunnar Solksjear scored the winner in the 93rd minute. In a matter of minutes, a match that had been all Bayern’s had been stolen away by United in the dying moments, not only securing the English club’s second Champions League title but also the fourth European continental treble ever.

4. Zidane’s Volley
Right before halftime in 2002 Champions League final, French midfielder Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid scored one of the best Champions League goals of all time against Bayer Leverkusen. As the ball dropped into the box from a lobbed cross, Zidane was perfectly positioned, just inside the penalty area with few defenders around him. Zidane connected with the ball perfectly as it fell, volleying it into the top corner of the net. This technique is one of the most difficult to perform successfully in soccer, as the timing of the shot has to be exact. Zidane made it look easy, and it proved to be the winning goal in the Champions League final.

3. Miracle of Istanbul
To come back from a 3-0 deficit in any match is impressive. To come back from a 3-0 deficit in six minutes is wild. To come back from a 3-0 deficit against one of the best teams of all time is unheard of. To do it in a Champions League final? That’s as close to a miracle as they come. Liverpool looked done and dusted going into the second half of the 2005 UCL final in Turkey, but goals from Steven Gerrard, Vladimír Šmicer, and Xabi Alonso brought the English side right back into the game. Liverpool went on to win the match on penalties, and the game was dubbed the “Miracle of Istanbul.”

2. La Remontada
Here is yet another incredible comeback and possibly the greatest in the history of the Champions League. Barcelona lost 4-0 to Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes in the first leg of the 2016/17 Champions League Round of 16. When Barcelona went up 1-0 inside three minutes, people joked about a comeback. Going into the second half at 2-0, there was actually a glimmer of hope. A penalty converted by Lionel Messi made it 3-0 early in the second half, but a goal by PSG cut the deficit and gave PSG a vital away goal. This meant that Barcelona needed three goals still. As time went on, it became less and less possible for Barca to do the impossible. But that’s exactly what they did anyway. A free kick and a penalty by Neymar in the 88th and 91st minutes made the tie level on aggregate, and a 95th-minute goal by Sergi Roberto’s outstretched foot knocked PSG out of the tournament.

1. Zidane’s Three-Peat
Zidane makes it on the list again, except this time as a manager. Zidane returned to Real Madrid in January of 2016 as the club’s coach and had an immediate impact. Real Madrid won the Champions League that year, and Zidane etched his name into the UCL history book once again. He didn’t stop there though. Real Madrid won the Champions League the following year as well, and in 2018, topped the following two years with a third Champions League title, a campaign in which Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale emulated their manager by adding to the list of the best Champions League goals of all time with two bicycle kicks.

Win, lose, or tie, Chelsea 'til I die, keep the blue flag flying high. Born and raised in New York City and an avid viewer of the English Premier League. Besides playing and watching soccer, I love to bike and write songs.

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