Like so much in European history, the spark for the Champions League was provided by the English doing something to annoy the French.
In this case, it was the media reaction to a friendly between Wolves and Honved in December 1954. A year after Ferenc Puskas and his Marvellous Magyars had marmalised England at Wembley, England’s club champions beat Puskas’ club side under Molineux’s new floodlights, live on BBC television. Displaying their customary gift for understatement, the English papers hailed Wolves as “champions of the world”.
Not so fast, spluttered L’Equipe editor Gabriel Hanot, a former France international, in an editorial that pointed out the only fair way to settle which team is best is a league-based competition. And if that is not practical, then use a cup format, with home and away legs.
European football’s governing body UEFA agreed, and the European Cup started in 1955. And for the next 30 years or so, everyone was content with a knockout tournament that turned Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and others into continental powerhouses.
But contentment and European football do not tend to coexist for long and, by the late 1980s, there were many in the game who wanted something different, something special. So, for the 1991-92 season, UEFA replaced the quarter-finals with two groups of four teams that guaranteed them six games each, followed by a final between the two group winners, in which Barcelona beat Sampdoria of Italy 1-0 at Wembley in London.
Then, they rebranded this mini-league of giants the Champions League, with Marseille beating AC Milan 1-0 in Munich to win the first one in May 1993.
That was almost 30 years ago. My, how you’ve grown.
Here is the story of how the Champions League was created, told by those who were there.
Gerhard Aigner: UEFA’s general secretary from 1989 to 2003, the German is an honorary member of European football’s governing body and will be in Paris for the Liverpool vs Real Madrid final on Saturday.
Tony Britten: Composer and conductor with experience in advertising, film, theatre and TV.
Phil Clements: Graphic designer who has worked with dozens of leading brands and companies.
Alex Fynn: A key player in the Premier League’s creation, the former advertising executive has advised dozens of clubs, federations and leagues.
Campbell Ogilvie: Joined Rangers as general secretary in 1978 and left the Glasgow club in 2005, taking a similar role with another of Scotland’s top clubs, Hearts. Later served as president of the Scottish Football Association.
Craig Thompson: Former managing director at TEAM Marketing and chief executive at the Champions Hockey League and the 34th America’s Cup. Now runs his own sports consultancy.
That’s the introductions out of the way, so let’s learn how football and sports marketing history were made…
Step one: How will this thing work?
Fynn: Among the handful of games that really changed football, you have to count Real Madrid versus Napoli in the first round of the European Cup in 1987 — the Spanish champions versus the Italian champions.
(Italian business tycoon and politician) Silvio Berlusconi had recently bought AC Milan. He was aghast at the idea that one of these two teams could be knocked out in the first round. He called the competition economic nonsense. The following year, Milan were champions, so he was worried about the same thing happening to them.
I was sitting at my desk in London one day and I got a call from his right-hand man: “Alex, here’s the job you always wanted: Design a European super league for Silvio Berlusconi”. I was flattered and I came up with a plan that I thought he would like, but not what football really needed. Eighteen clubs, chosen on merit, history and fanbase. Three teams from England, Germany, Italy and Spain; two from France and the Netherlands, and one each from Portugal and Scotland.
Aigner: Yes, it’s true — certain teams in southern Europe, not just Milan, came up with ideas to guarantee more matches. They wanted more certainty to justify the investments they were making in players. But their plans were not acceptable to UEFA. We were always clear: the champion of every country had to have a chance to play in the competition.
Ogilvie: In the days before huge TV contracts, it was all about match-day income — tickets, really. That meant clubs that could fill big stadiums, wherever they were, and could compete with clubs in what we now call bigger markets. That was good news for Rangers but also for Celtic, Aberdeen and Dundee United.
But you never knew how many home games you’d get in Europe. We (Rangers) went out in the first round in 1989 to Bayern Munich and the following day we had a board meeting to talk not about how we could guarantee more games — there should be no guarantees in football — but how we could increase our chances of more games.
I drafted a group-stage format and submitted it to UEFA. It was rebuffed. Twice! But we kept talking to other clubs about it, and obviously there was the Berlusconi plan out there, too. (Belgian club) Anderlecht director Roger Vanden Stock was the UEFA delegate at one of our games in 1991 and he suggested I try again. So, I got the paper translated into four languages and sent it to UEFA president Lennart Johansson. This time, it got through. It just landed at the right time.
Aigner: The main driver of our need to change was television. The clubs were the masters of their own rights. UEFA had to adapt and we brought in a system where the clubs paid us 10 per cent of their TV income and four per cent of their gate receipts, which we used to subsidise teams in smaller markets in eastern Europe or smaller ones in the big markets. That worked for a while but it became more difficult.
First, the clubs with the TV contracts would downplay how much they were worth, and the clubs without them would exaggerate their deficits. Everyone misled us and our finance department was overwhelmed trying to find out the reality.
But we also had a practical problem with the fixtures, as everyone wanted their own kick-off slot, with no clashes. And the smaller clubs would often refuse to play when the big clubs wanted to, knowing they were making it hard for their TV contracts. It was a confusing situation and UEFA had to step in to restore order.
Fynn: UEFA effectively had two proposals: the one I did for Berlusconi, which frightened them; and Rangers’ more practical solution. The pressure to do something was impossible to ignore and UEFA agreed to replace the quarter-finals with a group stage. There was no going back then.
Thompson: Clubs always want more money and they’ll do anything they can to get it. But the Champions League should never have happened.
We were very lucky that Johansson had become UEFA president. A very astute Swedish businessman, he could see the commercial rights weren’t being exploited. So, they did an experiment in the 1991-92 season when they took the final eight teams and put them into two groups. They liked it and said they’d do it again in 1992-93 but this time as an official competition, and we need a partner for that.
They put it out for tender and we got it. But then the majority of clubs said, “We don’t want it”, UEFA’s executive board said it didn’t want it and the journalists said they didn’t want it, either, because how can you take the European Cup, where you win or lose, live or die, and put it into a league? Is this an American scam? It was very difficult. And then, in our first season, we had sold the TV rights country by country but Germany, England and Spain, three of the five major markets, didn’t have a team that qualified (for the group stage). That almost put us under.
Ogilvie: It was a triangular partnership between football, broadcasters and the sponsors. And by pooling our rights, we all did much better. Rangers certainly did. But in those days, clubs weren’t supposed to talk directly to UEFA — that was for the national associations to do. So, I actually got a letter from the Scottish FA telling me off for not sending my proposal via them. I got a few of those letters during my time in football, to be fair.
Thompson: We knew the clubs’ commercial rights were worth a lot more if sold collectively, but the clubs didn’t. They were very sceptical that we could sell them for more than they could. We sold them for a hundred times more, in the long run, but there was no knowledge of that.
I’ll never forget the negotiations with Marseille owner Bernard Tapie. He protected his club’s interests with his last ounce of energy. I remember our negotiations finished at 3am, because he just couldn’t let go until he knew his club would be looked after financially.
Step two: The ‘landmark decision’ to take control away from the clubs
Ogilvie: I remember our first Champions League game against Marseille (in November 1992) — it was a wet Wednesday at Ibrox. There were a few teething problems but it went pretty well. That said, Craig (Thompson) had a seizure when he saw a row of policemen standing in front of the Champions League advertising hoardings. That took a bit of sorting out.
Thompson: Back then, if Manchester United were hosting Juventus in the European Cup, United would organise it like they did every other game. But we said, “Wait a second. This isn’t just any other game”. So, we had to get UEFA to write something into the regulations that TEAM are going to come in and have responsibility for the pitch, the design of the stadium, the hospitality areas, the parking, the camera positions and so on.
It was a landmark decision. The clubs absolutely hated it.
I went to Manchester United the first year they qualified and I was telling them all the conditions. I said I needed a hospitality room for 300 people with good access to the VIP seating and parking. They said, “Well, we’ve only got one room, Craig, and it’s our room and you won’t be having it”.
I said, “Well, we have a problem, because we have sponsor contracts in place that give them the right to bring guests to that room… We’re going to have to ask for that room”. And the guy said, in front of 20 people, “Excuse me, where are you from?”. He knew where I was from but I said, “America” and he said, “I thought so — you bloody well know nothing about football!”
Fynn: Hats off to UEFA, they got out of the way and left it up to the sports marketeers, who realised that to create something you needed centralised control.
TEAM knew football is both a live event and a television spectacular. Your audience for the former is in the thousands but the audience for the latter is in the millions. You need a stadium full of people, but a TV offer that’s clean, flexible and high-quality.
They went for a limited number of sponsors but gave them European-wide exposure. Less is more, and the whole thing was driven by scarcity value. They also sold the TV rights on a market by market basis, giving each broadcaster a live game and a highlights package. The sponsors were given signage in the stadium and advertising spots in the broadcasts.
Aigner: TEAM had all the ideas on how to centralise the rights and brand the competition — we just changed the statutes so they could do it. I think we made 70 million Swiss francs in that first season, whereas the clubs had claimed they had made only 10 million the season before. We always thought they were downplaying things, but now we knew!
Thompson: Football was in a sort of a crisis at the time. English clubs had been banned (after the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985). We wanted the Champions League to stand for the best of football. That meant getting rid of standing areas in stadiums, because that’s where a lot of the violence occurred. We wanted more restrooms for women, better food and drink, better parking. We had all that in the regulations. We had the best teams in the world, with the best players, playing each other on a regular basis. How could we position this from a brand perspective?
Step three: Make it all look and sound the best it possibly can
Clements: I used to work for an agency in London called Design Bridge. I remember Rod Petrie, our creative director, coming over to where a few of us were sitting and asking if anyone could come up with a few scribbles to show the guys from TEAM; something to get the conversation going.
So, I started doodling away and the idea of the starball just came to me. I was thinking of the EU (European Union) flag and something simple and eye-catching that would stand out on a Tango-style football. It took about 10 minutes. I took it to a proper logo artist to see if they could sharpen it up a bit but they didn’t really do much to it.
I gave it to Rod and he pinned it to the wall. When TEAM walked in, they said, “Cor, that’s good” and that’s pretty much it. There was a bigger presentation before the 1992 European Cup final. We painted the stars onto a ball and brought it along. The story goes that a representative from UEFA, a former player, was messing about with it and the ball went out of the window.
Thompson: I got the brief — the higher image of football, the stars of the game, star clubs — and I went to Design Bridge. They got their designers to start sketching and one guy got the idea to take a star into the shape of a ball. Is that perfect or what? The stars representing the best players, the ball representing the sport — it was a stroke of genius. The first time everyone saw it, we said, “That’s it!”. I’ve been in branding all my life and I’ve never seen everyone agree to something the first time.
Britten: I was pretty busy at the time doing advertising jingles and scores for film and TV, but I hadn’t done anything in sport. My agent must have heard about it somehow and we pitched for it.
When you talk to people who aren’t from musical backgrounds about what they want, they tend to say, “Can you do something that sounds a bit like…?” There’s a language barrier and you’ve got to see inside their heads.
They were clear they wanted something “classical”. It wasn’t long after the 1990 World Cup (and its association with Luciano Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma), so classical was in. They wanted an anthem, so it had to have words. But they said they didn’t want something like The Three Tenors. So, I said, “OK, a choir, then”.
I made a mixtape with bits of popular choral music, The Dream of Gerontius, Handel’s Messiah, that type of thing. Whoever was at the other end heard Zadok The Priest and said, “That’s it”. So, I wrote them something strong and rising — a fanfare, something with a baroque feel to it, and they loved it.
But then I said, “OK, what about lyrics? It’s an anthem, it needs words”. Blank expressions!
I remember Craig (Thompson) and I having lots of meetings and what really came across was the idea that this competition was sport of the highest quality. So I wrote a load of superlatives — “the best”, “the greatest”, and so on — and asked a lyricist to give me literal translations of these words in French and German. And then it all finishes with “the champions!”.
Thompson: Everybody in those days would have used rock music, we went classical. All of this is timing and luck but I found Tony Britten through a musical agency in London. Tony was a really good composer.
I’ll never forget standing on that podium with him at the first playing of the anthem in the rehearsal hall in London. I’ve got goosebumps to this day from hearing it for the first time. It’s remarkable what he did, how it’s not changed. It’s probably the most famous anthem in the world.
Britten: We recorded it at Angel Studios with the Royal Philharmonic (orchestra) and the St Martin-in-the-Fields’ (a central London church) choir.
When I get my (Performing Rights Society) statement each quarter, it’s still a nice surprise. For most of my work, the royalties are fractions of pennies but the anthem has been good for me. I won’t say how much I’ve earned from it but it’s allowed me to do more risky projects — artistic freedom, if you like.
I remember an Italian journalist once tried to get me to answer this question by asking how many Ferraris I’ve bought with the royalties. I told him I haven’t bought any. But I could have bought a few.
Clements: I’ve worked with lots of brands but genuine lightbulb moments like that are pretty rare and it’s definitely the biggest thing I’ve done. But it didn’t make me rich! Unlike the guy who did the anthem, I don’t get royalties, just a day rate, which I think was about £300. But I don’t get upset about it.
When people ask what I’ve done and I mention that, their jaws drop. And it hasn’t really changed. Everything else I’ve done has been tweaked and updated. A new brand manager comes in and changing the logo is one of the first things they do. But the Champions League logo is basically still what I scribbled in a few minutes 30 years ago.
Britten: In the late ’90s, Craig and I talked about freshening up the anthem. We spent quite a bit of money recording new versions of it: a funky one, a disco one, a rocky one. They sounded pretty good. But when we played it to the TV companies, they said, “Nah, we’re happy with the old one”.
It’s just stuck. Why? Because it’s timeless. The number of times people have asked me to do something fashionable — it could have been techno, drum-and-bass or something folksy with nose flutes — but the problem with pop music is it’s ephemeral. Classical music is not trendy, so it never goes out of fashion.
Thompson: We looked at it from this perspective: people are flipping through the channels, looking for football and we want them to see that starball. And when they see it, they’re going to stop, because it’s the best.
How do you get them to stop? Well, you have the line-up and that big centre circle behind the players. You’ve got ball boys with starball tops on. You’ve got the advertising boards always with the same configuration, with UEFA Champions League in the middle, which drove the sponsors crazy by the way. We said, “No, no. That’s Champions League space, sorry, and it’s the Champions League that is going to lift all the boats in this parade”.