For European soccer clubs, there is no greater glory. Soon the UEFA Champion’s League will enter the knockout stages, and the remaining teams will battle it out to determine which two sides will enter the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon, Portgual on May 24th as the finalists. Only on side will leave with the trophy, but there’s much work to be done until they can even think about that day. All the teams still left in the tournament as the knockout rounds begin have survived the group stage that played out during the fall. Some emerged unscathed after a series of dominant performances, others barely scraped through. Fortunately for the ones that barely survived, their performance in the tournament up until now is essentially irrelevant. They can start anew with a clean slate, since the only thing that matters now is having a higher aggregate score over two fixtures against their scheduled opponents.
Advancement through the tournament during the knockout stages is a relatively straightforward system. Two teams play each other over two games, with each team allowed one game in their home stadium in front of their fans. The team that’s chosen to advance is the team with the higher aggregate score; in other words, the team who scores more goals over two games. Winning the first leg 1-0 is meaningless if you lose the second game 2-0, since the aggregate score is 2-1 in favor of the opposition. This format continues during the round 16, quarterfinals, and semifinals, and the final in Lisbon will be a single game. Although the tournament is now called the UEFA Champions League, prior to 1992 it was simply known as the European Cup. Today we’ll examine the teams who have won the most European championships since the inception of the European cup in 1955.
10. Juventus – 2 Championships
Italian titans Juventus are among the most successful clubs in history. In addition to being one of the most followed clubs in Italy, Juventus has a massive international fan base thanks to members of the Italian diaspora. They’ve won the European Championship twice, once in 1985 and again in 1996, and have been runners-up 5 times. The 1985 victory was unfortunately marred by the Heysel stadium disaster, in which 39 Juventus fans died when Liverpool fans breached a fence to get into the Juventus fan section, charging them and causing Juventus fans to flee towards a concrete wall which would eventually collapse.
9. Benfica – 2 Championships
Benfica holds the same record as Juventus in European competition; 2 cup victories and 5 runner-ups. The Portuguese club were European champions in 1961 and 1962, and were the first club not named Real Madrid to hoist the trophy. They are the most successful Portuguese club in European competition, and the most successful club in the history of Portugal’s Primeira Liga, with 32 domestic titles. The last 50 years of European competition have been less kind to Benfica, and the last time they were runner-up in the tournament was in 1990. Their home stadium, Estádio da Luz, will play host to this year’s Champions League final.
8. Inter Milan – 3 Championships
Internazionale have always had a fierce rivalry with their city rival AC Milan, which only intensified when Inter won the European Cup for the first time in 1964. AC Milan had won the tournament the year prior, in 1963, so to see their Italian league rivals hoist the cup the following year must have been a bitter pill to swallow. Inter won again in 1965, but would wait 45 years to claim their third title. In 2010, under coach José Mourinho, Inter won the Champion’s League and added a 3rd European Championship title to their name. The 2010 win also made Mourinho one of the very few coaches to win multiple Champions League titles with different teams.
7. Manchester United – 3 Championships
Although they may have fallen on hard times recently, there’s no denying that Manchester United spent the better part of the last two decades being the most feared English club in the world. Under longtime coach Alex Ferguson they won the Champions League in 1999 and again in 2008. The inclusion of an additional European Cup victory in 1968 brings their total number of European Championships to 3. They’ve also been runners-up in the tournament twice, in 2009 and 2011, losing to Barcelona in the final on both occasions. Despite a poor domestic performance this season they remain in the Champions League, where new coach David Moyes is hoping he can orchestrate a miracle and win this year’s tournament.
6. AFC Ajax – 4 Championships
Dutch club Ajax, based out of Amsterdam, were one of the most successful clubs of the 20th century. They’ve won the European Cup/Champions League 4 times in 1971, 1972, 1973, and 1995, and have been runner-up twice in 1969 and 1996. In 1972 they won the continental treble (their domestic league, domestic cup, and European Cup), one of only 7 teams in European history to do so. Unfortunately Ajax, along with the rest of the Eredivisie, have failed to remain truly competitive in the 21st century compared to some of the other major leagues in Europe, despite producing excellent talent through their academies. If they want to hold on to that talent in the future they’ll have to prove they can remain competitive in European competition.
5. Barcelona – 4 Championships
Through much of the last few years, Barcelona have been the de facto best team in the world. Home to talent such as Andres Iniesta, Xavi, and Lionel Messi, they struck fear in the hearts of their opponents everywhere they went. Indeed, three of their Champions League titles have come in the last eight years, in 2006, 2009 and 2011. The addition of a previous European Cup victory in 1992 brings their total to four. They’ve been runner-up three times, and this year will be looking to add a 5th championship, but will first have to get through Manchester City, their first opponents in the knockout rounds.
4. Liverpool – 5 Championships
Liverpool is the most successful English club in terms of European competition, with five European Cup/Champions League victories. They won in 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, and 2005, and have been runner-up in 1985 and 2007. They’ve had their ups and downs in European competition, notably the aforementioned Heysel stadium disaster in 1985, which resulted in all English clubs beings banned indefinitely from European competitions until it was lifted in 1990. On the other hand, they’ve also been a part of truly magical moments, namely the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul. Liverpool was down 3-0 by halftime, but roared back to score 3 goals of their own in 6 minutes during the second half. They would eventually win the game during penalty shoot-outs after extra time failed to produce a victor. This season, Liverpool are battling Tottenham and Everton to claim a place in next year’s Champions League to add to their record.
3. Bayern Munich – 5 Championships
Defending champions Bayern Munich added their 5th championship during the 2013 Champions League final last year against domestic rivals Borussia Dortumnd. They also hold the 1974, 1975, 1976 and 2001 titles, in addition to being runner-up in 1982, 1987, 1999, 2010 and 2012. Bayern Munich is the most successful German team both domestically and in European competition. Now being coached by Pep Guardiola, the man who led Barcelona to their victories in 2006, 2009 and 2011, they are the favorite to defend their championship this year, but will first have to face a resurgent Arsenal who will be hunting their first Champions League title.
2. AC Milan – 7 Championships
Milan has an astounding 7 European Cup/Champions League titles to their name, which include victories in 1963, 1969, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, and 2007. In addition, they were the runner-up in 1958, 1993, 1995 and 2005. They are the most successful Italian club in European competition, and have qualified for this year’s knockout rounds despite being horrendous domestically in Serie A. In Italy, the club is tied for 2nd in terms of all-time league titles with city rivals Inter Milan, although fans of AC Milan hold their European success over the heads of their rivals.
1. Real Madrid – 9 Championships
Real Madrid is the most successful European club in European Cup/Champions League competition by a fairly large margin. They won the first five European Cups in 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, and 1960. They later added to their record five consecutive victories in 1966, 1998, 2000, and 2002. They were also runners-up in 1962, 1964, and 1981. Since 2002 they have been hunting ‘La Decima’, the Champions League title that would make Real Madrid the first club to take their total to double-digit figures. After three consecutive seasons of being eliminated in the semi-finals, Real appear determined to make 2014 the year they usurp Bayern Munich as European champions and accomplish their long-awaited goal.