Liverpool's five European trophies champions league Liverpool’s five European trophies.

What is the UEFA Champions League?

The short answer 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 we explain more, let’s cover a little history.

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For a little background, it helps to understand how the world of football is organized. It’s all 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 regions, and within each region there are three big competitions:

  • A qualifying tournament to send some countries to the World Cup every four years.
  • A nation vs. nation tournament for the regional championship; an example is the Copa America in South America.
  • 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 our US readers: The US is part of the FIFA region CONCACAF, which we 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 50+ years. Usually a Mexican team wins it.

This video explains all of that, as well:

Who Qualifies for the Champions League?

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 now the smaller countries — based on some mysterious FIFA “co-efficient” system that no one understands — all get one entry, and the bigger nations get several.

England, for example, gets four Champions League slots, 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 ton of money — from television, ticket sales and merchandise sales. It also helps a club sign bigger players who want to play in the Champions League.

By the way, teams #5 and #6 in England go into the second-rate European competition, the Europa League, and #7 goes into the new UEFA Europa Conference League. It’s actually more confusing than that, but we’ll spare you the details here.

trophy case Manchester United European champions

Part of the trophy case at Manchester United, three-time European champions.

Structure of the Champions League

The four English teams 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 from September to December 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 the 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. The exception is that, at this stage, no two teams from the same country will be drawn against each other.

Away-Goals Rule in the Champions League?

In the past, these Knockout Stage ties were decided by total (aggregate) goals, with the first tiebreaker being “away goals,” i.e. goals scored at the other team’s home ground. However, starting with the 2021-22 competition, the away goals rule has been replaced by two 15-minute periods of extra time then penalty kicks if necessary.

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. Liverpool, with six, lead England in European titles, something they like to remind Manchester United (three titles) of with a few different songs.

UEFA Champions League Recent Results and This Year’s Schedule

Chelsea are the current champions, having beaten Manchester City in the 2021 final, 1-0. Both will play in the 2021-22 Champions League, along with Liverpool and Manchester United. Liverpool, who lost the 2018 final to Real Madrid, beat Tottenham in 2019 for their sixth title.

Here is the full schedule for the 2021-22 Champions League. The fixtures for the Group stages will be announced on August 26. The final is on May 28, 2022 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

You can watch it all on Paramount+ in the US:

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 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.

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