Champions League History: How Its Evolution Has Mirrored Modern Sporting Fandom

champions league evolution
The Champion's League is a European showcase of some of the finest football you'll find anywhere on the planet. Let's take a look at how this phenomenal tournament has evolved.


It’s a common bugbear among older football fans to claim that football was not “invented” in 1992 with the advent of the Premier League. The sport had a long and more storied history for many decades before anyone had heard of terms like Sky Sports or EPL. Similarly, the Champions League often overshadows the rich history of the European Cup. There is a continuation, of course; teams like Real Madrid count their European Cup triumphs of the 1950s just as preciously as they do their modern successes in the Champions League.

Yet, the Champions League, which was also launched in 1992, is an interesting case study in how it mirrors the fans’ experience in modern football. There are similarities with the Premier League, of course, but the Champions League arguably goes further in its reflection.

To start, let’s look back at the inaugural Champions League in the 1992-1993 season. Leeds United were England’s representatives in the tournament, and they largely disappointed the fans, losing to Rangers in the second round. The Scottish champions made a good fist of things, finishing second in Group A (the early knockout rounds were before the Group Stage back then) behind eventual winners, Marseille.

Leeds’ Campaign Ended in Disappointment

You can be sure that most casual fans don’t recall Leeds’ performances in that campaign. And indeed, footage of the action is hard to come by. And that, in fact, is our first point. The early years of the Champions League were sparse in their broadcast coverage. There was no social media coverage, obviously. And many of us would have to wait until the nightly news programmes or the next day’s papers told us the result.

Of course, modern sport is characterized by the fact that fans interact with it in many different ways. You may engage with Europe’s premier football competition via social media, fan forums, fantasy football, and Champions League betting. But back in the early days of the competition, much of that was out of reach for the casual fan. As mentioned, television coverage was hard to come by. ITV had the rights to show Champions League games in the UK, but many ITV regions opted out of showing the matches.

One important factor, however, was that the 1990s coverage meant that there was no sense of oversaturation. Indeed, that lent the tournament a sense of mystery. UK viewers could tune in to see stars they had seen at the Euros and World Cups, like Roberto Baggio and Michael Laudrup, but they would also discover new players. The media machine had not overexposed every player from a young age. There was a sense of discovery from fans.

Now, none of this is meant to say that the Champions League and surrounding media as it is today is bad because we see so much of it. But there was something special about seeing someone like Zinedine Zidane, a player who you might have only seen in short highlights on Channel 4’s Football Italia on a Sunday morning, line up against your team.

The Champions League began to expand in the 1997-98 season, moving from 16 teams to 24. The famed Manchester United Treble in the 1998-1999 season was the first Champions League/European Cup not won by a reigning champion or domestic champion, meaning United would not have qualified under the older format. The year after, we had the expansion to 32 teams. As we know, this is going to expand to 36 teams next season.

A Risk of Oversaturating the Product

We all know the arguments for and against these changes. As to the former, the argument is that it does not equate to a “Champions” League any longer but rather a tournament set to favor Europe’s most established teams. On the plus side, you will be getting more games than ever before. Next season, teams will play eight Group Games in the new format instead of six. But are more games necessarily better? Again, we go back to this idea of mystique. It used to feel special when your team came up against someone like Real Madrid. Man City, for instance, have played six matches against Madrid in the 2020s alone.

There is growing pushback against the changes fostered by UEFA, and many see the new Champions League as a trojan horse for the European Super League. The mantra is simply that more clashes between the big names are good for the product and ultimately generate money. But it lessens the mystique of the tournament; it removes the sense of occasion.

None of this is meant to sound bitter. The 2023/24 Champions League will deliver drama in the knockout stages, and you can be sure that Manchester City and Arsenal fans will feel a growing sense of excitement as their teams – hopefully – progress through the latter stages of the tournament. And rightly so.

Yet, for many fans, the constant coverage – not just on television but on social media – will remove that sense of occasion and mystery. It is the characteristic of modern football fandom; everything is known beforehand but the result of the match. For some, that will be welcome as we navigate a hyper-information society. For others, there will be a yearning for the days when each European Cup match featured a national champion and was shrouded in the unknown.


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