It’s instantly recognizable to fans of the beautiful game, that signature choir chant that heralds the beginning of each game in the most prestigious club tournament in the world: “The Champions!” I’m speaking of course, about the UEFA Champions League, formerly known simply as the European Cup. The European Cup was first held in 1955 and it was re-branded as the UEFA Champions League in 1992, although the purpose remains essentially the same. The goal is to determine the best soccer team in Europe, the proving ground of the game, where the top players in the world come to ply their trade in elite level clubs.
The clubs that compete in the Champions League vary year to year. Successful entry into the tournament is contingent on finishing high up the table in any given club’s domestic league. The UEFA coefficients are used to determine league strength, and nations with high coefficients are allowed more entrants into the tournament. The top leagues in Spain, England, and Germany are allowed four entrants, meaning that the top four teams in the Premier League, the Bundesliga, and La Liga at the season’s end all get enrolled in the Champions League the following year. Italy, France and Portugal have three spots, so the top three teams in each league are enrolled, etc. In total, 76 teams across Europe vie to continue in the Champions League, but by the time the group stage begins in the fall, only 32 teams remain. 16 teams advance to the knockout rounds that take place throughout the winter, and the final two teams play in the spring to determine who is that year’s European champion.
It’s an exciting contest that can make or break a player or manager’s career, and in modern times it’s regarded by some as an even more prestigious championship than a team’s domestic league title. Victory in this tournament is dependent on strong team tactics, but, as is the nature of the sport, the individual glory goes to the men who can find the back of the net with the pressure piled on. These are the 10 men who have been able to do just that throughout the 22-year history of the Champions League.
10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic – 39 Goals
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is, quite possibly, the best player in the world not named Messi or Ronaldo. The 32-year-old Swedish striker is the only man to score for six different clubs in the UEFA Champions League, which has solidified his status as a mercenary for hire, though he has never publicly requested a transfer. He’s played for Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona, and finally for Paris Saint-Germain, where he plays today. His flashy style and ruthless finishing have made ‘Ibra’ a household name around the world, and he’ll be looking to add to his 39 goal tally this year with PSG, who have advanced to the knockout stages of the tournament.
9. Alessandro Del Piero – 41 Goals
The man who best exemplified Juventus is the man who was their captain for 11 years. Alessandro Del Piero scored 41 goals for Juve in the Champions League during his tenure from 1993-2012. Del Piero played a total of 7817 minutes in Champions League competition, and on average found the net every 191 minutes. After 20 years with Juventus, he left to Australian club Sydney FC to play out the last few season’s of his storied career.
8. Didier Drogba – 42 Goals
The name Didier Drogba is almost synonymous with Chelsea. The striker made 226 appearances for the Blues during his tenure from 2004-2012, and became a legend in his own right at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea could always count on Drogba to pull them through tough situations, as he was known for his ability to score crucial goals when they were needed most. No other game embodies that more than the 2012 Champions League final, which was also his final game with Chelsea, when he scored an equalizer in the 88th minute to bring the game against Bayern Munich into overtime. He went on to score the winning goal in penalty kicks, winning the tournament for Chelsea against all odds. He has found the net 42 times in the Champions League, and will be looking to add to that number when he plays for his new club Galatasaray in this year’s knockout rounds. Incredibly, their first opponent will be his old club Chelsea, in a match that certainly won’t be short of drama.
7. Filippo Inzaghi – 46 Goals
Italian legend Filippo Inzaghi played in the Champions League for both AC Milan and Juventus, netting 46 goals in the process. He was also the first player to score two Champions League hat tricks, both times with Juventus. Inzaghi played a total of 7029 minutes of Champions League soccer, and found the net on average every 153 minutes. His storied career came to an end in 2012, when he retired after 11 years with AC Milan. He couldn’t stay away from the game for long though; he immediately signed a contract to manage AC Milan’s under-17 team.
6. Andriy Shevchenko – 48 Goals
In his prime, Shevchenko was one of the most lethal strikers on the planet. He made Champions League appearances with three different clubs; Dynamo Kyiv, AC Milan, and Chelsea. Champions League competition brought out the very best in Shevchenko, driving him to 48 goals in 8682 minutes of play (one goal every 181 minutes on average). He also joined a short list of players to have scored four goals in a single Champions League game in a 4-0 victory against Fenerbache during his stay at Milan. He retired in soccer in 2012 for a career in Ukrainian politics.
5. Thierry Henry – 55 Goals
French striker Thierry Henry is no stranger to goals. He scored 55 of them in Champions League competition, mostly with Arsenal and Barcelona. Henry spent a massive 10,886 minutes on the field during Champions League competition, and found the net every 198 minutes on average. He’s also Arsenal’s all time leading goal scorer, and led them to multiple Premier League titles and the final of the 2006 Champion’s League, where they lost to his future club Barcelona. At Barca, Henry was part of the squad that won an unprecedented sextuple in 2009, where they won La Liga, la Copa Del Rey, the Champions League, la Supercoppa de Espana, the UEFA Super Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup.
4. Ruud van Nistelrooy – 56 Goals
Dutch striker van Nistelrooy was a terrifying sight for defensive players around the world, especially during the Champions League. He was the competition’s top scorer three times, and has scored more goals in European competition for Manchester United than any other player in history. He parted ways with United in 2006 and spent four years with Real Madrid, adding to his already impressive goal tally. He scored every 117 minutes on average during Champions League competition, a figure bested only by Lionel Messi. He retired in 2012, after a nearly 20 year career in soccer.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo – 59 Goals
The name Cristiano Ronaldo needs no introduction to anyone who even loosely follows soccer. 2013’s Ballon d’Or winner has scored 59 times during Champions League competition, spending 8725 minutes on the field and finding the net every 148 minutes on average. He’s made Champions League appearances with Manchester United and Real Madrid, and was instrumental in Manchester United’s 2008 Champion’s League victory. Since joining Real Madrid in 2009, he has become their fastest player to ever reach 100 league goals, and has been the Champions League top goal scorer twice. Ronaldo and Real Madrid head into this year’s knockout stages aiming to find their 10th Champions League/European Cup victory.
2. Lionel Messi – 65 Goals
Lionel Messi just might be the best player to ever lace up a pair of boots. The Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo debate will probably rage on until both players retire, but in terms of pure statistics there’s no denying that Messi has the edge in Champions League competition. The diminutive Argentine striker has scored 65 times for Barcelona, the only club he’s ever played for. He’s scored, on average, every 112 minutes in Champions League competition, and has won the Champions League three times with Barcelona. He’s scored more hat tricks (four) than any other player in Champions League history, and is also the only player to score five goals in one Champions League game. He’ll be looking to take his already historic statistics into previously unthinkable heights when Barcelona meet Manchester City in the knockout stages of this year’s Champions League.
1. Raúl – 71 Goals
Raúl Gonzales (known simply as Raúl) was the face of Real Madrid for almost 16 years, from 1995 to 2010. He was club captain from 2003-2010, and is their all time leading goal scorer with 323 goals. In Champions League competition he led Real Madrid to victory three times, scoring in the finals of the tournament on two of those occasions. He was the first player to ever score 50 Champions League goals and spent an astonishing 12,701 minutes in Champions League competition. He scored, on average, every 179 minutes during the tournament. The Spanish striker left Real Madrid in 2010, after his importance to the first team had slowly dwindled thanks to the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo and the new generation of Madrid stars. He played for Schalke 04 for two years before moving to Qatari club Al Sadd, where he plays to this day.