In 1986 the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi bought AC Milan. Not only did he transform the fortunes of Italy and Europe’s top clubs, he lobbied to transform European competition. A year later, the champions of Serie A and La Liga were drawn in the first round of the European Cup. In a bad-tempered match at the Bernabeu, that took place behind closed doors due to crowd violence the previous season, Maradona’s Napoli was defeated by Real Madrid. This game set in place a process that transformed the European Cup into the Champions League. The game provoked Berlusconi to remark, ‘The European Cup has become a historical anachronism. It is economic nonsense that a club such as Milan might be eliminated in the first round. It is not modern thinking’. For the owners of the top teams, they did not want their clubs to be eliminated early and lose much needed television and sponsorship revenue. For the media magnate, European competition would be better if you had the glamourous clubs in the competition longer.
From 1992 the men’s Champions League was formed with a new format, visuals and financial structure. Seeding was introduced and a league structure was established to give those clubs with more resources more opportunity to progress in the competition. The league format also provided more games for television, that helped promote increased media deals. UEFA also introduced corporate partners, replicating what had been developed by FIFA and the Olympics. Although this new competition was lobbied by owners of top clubs, most notably the G-14 (precursor the European Clubs Association), UEFA still greatly increased its power with its centralised authority. As a consequence, UEFA has entered into the consciousness of European fans, administrators and authorities.
In 2001, the UEFA Women’s Cup was launched, before becoming the Women’s Champion League in 2009. The 2021-22 season sees the expansion of places for the top six associations and is modelled on the men’s format. Whilst the initial sponsorship structure was utilised for both the women and men’s Champions Leagues, the Women’s Champions League has developed its own corporate partners in recent years. The prize money for the women’s game remains greatly inferior to the men’s game, although professionalisation of the women’s game is growing rapidly.
Consequently, the 2021-22 season will mark the 30th anniversary of the men’s Champions League and 20th anniversary of the women’s tournament. Throughout this period, women and men’s football has undergone dramatic economic transformation. European clubs have shifted from local ownership to global conglomerates that compete for the best players in the world. At the same time, the hegemony of the elite clubs in the top five leagues (Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue 1, Premier League, Serie A) has been consolidated. Indeed, only one team that wasn’t in the original G-14 group has won the competition: Chelsea. Gone are the days of finals with Nottingham Forest, Anderlecht or Red Star Belgrade. Financial Fair Play has been introduced to minimise excessive spending by clubs, which further inhibits opportunities to break the hegemony. One of the consequences of the Champions League is to divide Europe into the top five leagues, a semi-periphery including Greece, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey and Scandinavia, and a periphery where clubs from leagues in Latvia or Albania are unlikely to progress from the first stages of qualification every season. This pattern is similar, but different, in the women’s game, where France and Germany are joined by Sweden as the dominant leagues.
This timely special issue not only explores the last thirty years of both Champions Leagues, but provides an opportunity to reflect on this transformation, examine the contemporary context and identify future challenges. We encourage submissions from all academic disciplines and across Europe (and beyond) so that readers will benefit from a comparative and interdisciplinary analysis of contemporary European football.
We welcome submissions from research areas that include (but not restricted to) the following:
- Coaching and player development
- Political Economy
- Corporate Social Responsibility
- Anti-discrimination activities/Respect