Strange as it may seem, this season will the last that sees the UEFA Champions League played in this particular format.
From the 2024/25 season, UEFA’s most prestigious club competition, and its most lucrative, will be altered to include more teams than ever in the Group Stage.
Furthermore, the Group Stage will be altered completely to ensure that each team plays at least eight games in the tournament (two more than the current six).
Additionally, 24 teams will make it into the new-look knockout phase, which will have a playoff round ahead of the Round of 16.
We will explain the new format in more detail below, because it is very different to the format used at present. But did you know that the Champions League has undergone many changes since it was first established in the 1950s?
Let’s take a quick look back through history and explore how the competition has evolved.
The Backdrop – Champions League Changes Through History
- Formative Years up to 1956
The first example of a tournament comprised of the Champions of two different countries actually came back in 1895. It was called the World Championship and it featured English Champions Sunderland, taking on Scottish Champions Hearts, with the Black Cats winning 5-3.
Similar tournaments were contested between the champions of countries such as Austria and Hungary but the first real international club tournament was the Challenge Cup, which featured teams from Italy, Germany Switzerland and England in 1909 and 1911.
This was succeeded by the Mitropa Cup, but after the first World War, the Mitropa Cup lost its status as more countries adopted professional leagues. Other mini tournaments sprouted up post World War II with the Latin Cup and Coppa Grasshoppers amongst them.
However, in Latin America, the Copa Libertadores, was gaining in popularity. A genuine intercontinental club championship, French journalists Jacques Ferran and Gabriel Hanot were the first to propose a similar competition for teams in Europe.
In 1955, the idea was proposed at the UEFA Congress and it was agreed that the tournament would start in 1955/56 season. The new tournament would be called the European Cup.
- The European Cup – 1955 to 1992
At first, not all countries Champions participated in the event, most notably England Champions, Chelsea, who were denied entry into the tournament by the Football League, although English teams did start participating a year or so later.
The early tournaments featured a simple format of two-legged knockout ties in each round until the final. If teams drew in the final after extra time, a replay would be played, although only one final ever went to a replay (the 1973-74 final between Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid).
Replays were done away with as logistically they became very difficult to organise, so penalties were adopted to decide the winner in games.
From 1955 up to 1992, the competition retained its two-leg knockout format up to the final, but by 1992, UEFA wanted to greatly increase the revenue generated by its biggest competition, which led to a rebrand and a new tournament design.
- The Champions League – 1993 to 2023
Goodbye the European Cup, hello to the Champions League. UEFA’s rebrand and redesign saw two Knockout Rounds of competition before the 8 remaining teams would be placed into groups, where they would play the other teams in their group home and away. The two group winners contesting the final.
That format lasted just two years as the Group Stage proved to be a commercial success for UEFA and a big hit with fans and TV broadcasters. UEFA wanted to capitalise on that and so for the 1994-95 Champions League, the format was once again changed.
After just one qualifying round, 16 teams were drawn into four groups for the Group Stafe, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the knockout phase, which would then progress with two-legged matches until the final.
This format only lasted for a couple of years as by the 1997-98 season, the competition was greatly expanded, now having two qualifying rounds and an expanded six group (24 team) Group Stage. Initially just the six group winners and the two best second placed team qualified for the quarter finals.
The next big change came just a couple of years later, with the tournament now expanded to include even more clubs (71 in total) and now 32 teams would qualify for an initial Group Phase (8 groups of 4) and the top two in each group would then qualify for a second Group Phase (4 groups of 4). The top two teams from each group in this second group stage would qualify for the quarter finals.
However, by 2003-04, UEFA had done away with the second Group Stage and instead introduced the Round of 16, where the top two teams in each group would qualify with the tournament being a straight knockout over two legs to the final.
That format has remained in place since but a niggling concern has made UEFA make changes to its tournament.
- The Breakaway Super League Threat
Since the advent of the Champions League, there has been an imperceptible threat that some of the biggest teams would breakaway to form their own competition, especially if they did not get what they wanted from UEFA.
Many of European football’s biggest teams wanted guaranteed entry into the lucrative Champions League each year, something which UEFA, and fans alike, baulked at.
However, the possibility of a breakaway Super League crystallised in 2021 when a number of top European Clubs formed, albeit briefly, their own Super League. However, these ambitions floundered as fan dissent and domestic opposition against the changes was huge.
UEFA’s plan to address this issue was to once again change the format of the Champions League.
This new plan ostensibly would make it easier for the biggest teams in Europe to qualify each year.
The New Champions League Format Explained
The new format for the Champions League will still feature three qualifying rounds and a playoff round even before the group stage of the new competition takes place.
29 teams will be seeded into the Group Stage in the new competition, with seven earning their place in the Group Stages through the qualifiers.
For the first time, two countries will have the maximum permitted five Champions League qualifiers.
While the knockout phases of the tournament remain, it is the Group Stage and the first phase of the Knockout Stage that has undergone the most changes.
- Champions League Group Stage & Knockout Phase Changes 2024-25
Rather than playing in eight individual groups, the Group Stage from 2024/25 will be one large group comprising of 36 teams. Each team will play eight games in the group phase, which will now be rebranded as the “League Stage”.
Teams will be placed into one of four ‘seeding pots’ to decide who they play in the draw. They will then play two opponents from each pot. So a team in Pot A would play two teams from Pot A home and away, two teams from Pot B home and away and so on for Pots C and D.
At the end of the eight games, 24 teams will move forward into the knockout phase.
- Knockout Phase – Playoffs & Round of 16
The top eight teams from the League Stage will be seeded directly into the Round of 16.
The 16 other teams ranked from 9th to 24th will be drawn against each other in a Playoff Round to decide who goes forward into the Round of 16 to face one of the seeded teams.
From the Round of 16 on, the competition will proceed as in its existing format.
UEFA say this new format, which they have called the “Swiss system” clubs a chance to ‘test themselves against a wider range of opponents and raises the prospect for fans seeing the top teams go head to head more often and earlier in the competition.”
Furthermore, similar changes will be made to both the Europa League and the Europa Conference League (which will become the UEFA Conference League from 2024/25) competitions.
What are the Positives Of The New Champions League Format?
- There will be more ‘big’ games between the top teams in Europe throughout the competition.
- More games means more TV revenue for teams, more money to be won from prize money and more games for fans to attend.
- Companies that offer betting on the Champions League, such as bet365 Sport, will have more games to offer betting on to customers.
- There are likely to be fewer ‘dead rubber’ games, where neither team has anything to play for, or games where teams feel they can rest key players as they have already qualified.
Are there any Negatives to the New Champions League Format?
- The new format is very different to what fans are used to and the Swiss format has never been used in a major football tournament.
- Teams can draw “easy” or “difficult” teams in the draw, making their route into the knockout phase much easier or more difficult depending on their opponents.
- Smaller teams argue that this new system is weighted in favour of the biggest European teams to ensure they get more money from the competition.
- Group Stage teams will have to squeeze in at least two and perhaps four more Champions League games into their already overcrowded season.
Conclusion – Will It Work?
These sweeping changes across all of UEFA’s club competitions are the biggest changes since the Champions League era usurped the European Cup.
They are UEFA’s attempt to appease the bigger clubs and to ensure they have as much chance as possible to qualify for the competition each year, and also reach the latter stages of the tournament.
Whether fans like the new Swiss System remains to be seen, but it has been used very successfully, particularly in Esports tournaments.
It’s a calculated gamble from UEFA, but one they had to take given the concern over a potential Super League breakaway.
Whether it is enough to deter the biggest European teams from that aim, is the billion dollar question.