UEFA Champions League Explained: How the Tournament Works

Haris KruskicContributor IFebruary 12, 2019


The UEFA Champions League is one of the most prestigious tournaments in all of sports. Here's everything you need to know about the pre-eminent club soccer tournament in the world, which has been played annually since 1955.


What is the UEFA Champions League?

The UEFA Champions League is a soccer tournament of 32 teams that compete in five rounds for the right to be crowned the best club in European soccer.


When did the UEFA Champions League start?

The first UEFA Champions League tournament was held during the 1955-56 season, and it has been held every year since.

Real Madrid won the inaugural tournament during the 1955-56 season.
Real Madrid won the inaugural tournament during the 1955-56 season.UEFA


How has the tournament changed since 1955?

The inaugural tournament, then known as the European Cup (up until 1992), had just 16 teams competing in four knockout rounds (first round, quarterfinals, semifinals and final). Real Madrid defeated Reims 4-3 to win the title in the first tournament.

In 1960, the tournament expanded to 32 teams (adding an additional round) and kept the rest of the format the same. In 1992, UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) changed the name of the tournament to the UEFA Champions League and replaced the first round with a group stage.

The 32 teams were split into eight groups of four, with each team playing the other three teams in their respective group in a double round-robin format. The winner and runner-up of each group advanced to the round of 16, where the teams would then continue the usual knockout-stage process (round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and final).


How are the teams selected?

The number of teams each association enters into the UEFA Champions League is based upon the UEFA coefficients of the member associations. These scores are generated by the results of clubs representing each association during the previous five UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League seasons. The higher an association's coefficient, the more teams represent the association in the Champions League and the fewer qualification rounds the association's teams must compete in.

Since the 2009-10 season, the UEFA Champions League offers two qualification "streams" for teams that do not receive direct entry to the tournament. The two streams are divided between teams qualified by virtue of being a domestic league champion, and those qualified by virtue of being second through fourth in their domestic league. Five teams from each qualifying stream earn a place in the group stage.

The other 22 teams qualified automatically, either as the defending UCL champion, the defending UEL champion or through their respective domestic leagues. Each of the top 12 ranked associations in the UEFA coefficients are guaranteed at least one spot, with more spots being allocated the higher a league's coefficient is.


What happens once the 32 teams qualify?

The 32 teams are split into four different "pots," with the restriction that teams from the same association could not be drawn against each other. For the draw, the teams were seeded into four pots based on the following principles:

• Pot 1 contains the Champions League titleholders, the Europa League titleholders and the champions of the top six associations based on their UEFA coefficients. If either the Champions League or Europa League titleholders were one of the champions of the top six associations, the champions of the association ranked seventh, and possibly eighth, are also seeded into Pot 1.

• Pots 2, 3 and 4 contain the remaining teams, seeded based on their 2018 UEFA club coefficients.

Then, a team is drawn from each pot until there are eight groups of four.


How does the group stage work?

The 32 teams compete in a double round-robin format called the group stage. The group winners and runners-up advance to the round of 16, the first round of the knockout phase. The teams are ranked by points. Three points are awarded for a win, one point is awarded for a tie and no points are awarded for a loss. According to UEFA, if tied on points, the following tiebreaking criteria are applied:

1. higher number of points obtained in the group matches played among the teams in question.

2. superior goal difference from the group matches played among the teams in question.

3. higher number of goals scored in the group matches played among the teams in question.

4. higher number of goals scored away from home in the group matches played among the teams in question.

If after having applied criteria 1. through 4., teams still have an equal ranking, criteria 1. through 4. are reapplied exclusively to the matches between the remaining teams to determine their final rankings. If this procedure does not lead to a decision, criteria 5. through 12. apply in the order given to the two or more teams still equal.

5. superior goal difference in all group matches.

6. higher number of goals scored in all group matches.

7. higher number of away goals scored in all group matches.

8. higher number of wins in all group matches.

9. higher number of away wins in all group matches.

10. lower disciplinary points total based only on yellow and red cards received in all group matches (red card = 3 points, yellow card = 1 point, expulsion for two yellow cards in one match = 3 points).

11. higher club coefficient.


How does the knockout phase work?


A draw takes place for the round of 16. The 16 remaining clubs are split into two pots of eight, with one containing the winners of each respective group from the group stage and the other holding the runners-up.

A club is drawn from each pot to determine what the matchups would be, with the conditions that a winner and runner-up who played in the same group in the previous round cannot be drawn together again and that clubs from the same domestic league cannot play one another.

The quarterfinal and semifinal draws do not have clubs split into separate pots. As a result, any remaining club can be drawn together regardless of whether or not they are a group winner or runner-up, played in the same one in the group stage or are clubs from the same domestic league. As the draws for the quarterfinals and semifinals are held together before the quarterfinals are played, the identity of the quarterfinal winners is not known at the time of the semifinal draw.


Knockout-Phase Legs and Tiebreakers

Two teams are drawn together for each round of the knockout phase, apart from the final. The teams play two matches, with each squad playing one match at home. Each match is known as a "leg." The group winners host the second leg in the round of 16. The team that scores more goals over the two legs advances to the next round.

If the aggregate score is level, the away-goals rule is applied. Therefore, the club that scores more goals away from home over the two legs advances. If away goals are also equal, then extra time (an additional 30 minutes) is played. The away-goals rule is again applied after extra time. Therefore, if there are goals scored during extra time and the aggregate score is still level, the visiting team advances by virtue of more away goals scored.

If no goals are scored during extra time, the winners are decided by a penalty shootout. In a penalty shootout, the team that scores more penalties in a frame of five attempts wins. If the two teams are still tied after five attempts, they continue to alternate players until one scores their penalty and the other does not.

In the final (which is played as a single match in a neutral venue), if the score is level at the end of normal time, extra time is played. If the score is still level after extra time, the winner is decided by a penalty shootout.

Barcelona celebrated their fifth UCL title in 2015.
Barcelona celebrated their fifth UCL title in 2015.UEFA

UEFA Champions League Schedule

June-August: Qualification

Late August: Group-Stage Draw

September-December: Group-Stage Matchdays

December: Round-of-16 Draw

February-March: Round of 16

Late March: Quarterfinal and Semifinal Draws

April: Quarterfinals

Late April-Early May: Semifinals

Late May/Early June: Final


How do I watch the UEFA Champions League?

Every match is available to stream on B/R Live. You can buy a monthly or yearly subscription, or purchase individual matches for $2.99. Sign up for B/R Live here.

Watching from the UK? Every match is available on BT Sport, the BT Sport App and Sport.BT.com.


Which teams have won the UEFA Champions League title in previous years?

1. Real Madrid: 13 titles (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018)

Former Real Madrid star Paco Gento is the only person to win the UCL six times.
Former Real Madrid star Paco Gento is the only person to win the UCL six times.UEFA

2. AC Milan: 7 titles (1963, 1969, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, 2007)

T3. Bayern Munich: 5 titles (1974, 1975, 1976, 2001, 2013)

T3. Liverpool: 5 titles (1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005)

T3. Barcelona: 5 titles (1992, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2015)

6. Ajax: 4 titles (1971, 1972, 1973, 1995)

T7. Inter Milan: 3 titles (1964, 1965, 2010)

T7. Manchester United: 3 titles (1968, 1999, 2008)

T9. Benfica: 2 titles (1961, 1962)

T9. Nottingham Forest: 2 titles (1979, 1980)

T9. Juventus: 2 titles (1985, 1996)

T9. FC Porto: 2 titles (1987, 2004)

T13. Celtic: 1 title (1967)

T13. Feyenoord: 1 title (1970)

T13. Aston Villa: 1 title (1982)

T13. Hamburg: 1 title (1983)

T13. Steaua Bucuresti: 1 title (1986)

T13. PSV Eindhoven: 1 title (1988)

T13. Red Star Belgrade: 1 title (1991)

T13. Marseille: 1 title (1993)

T13: Borussia Dortmund: 1 title (1997)

T13. Chelsea: 1 title (2012)