Opinion

How a Frenchman's dream became the Champions League juggernaut

Europe's elite clubs and their millionaire stars should recognise the telling contribution of legendary journalist Jacques Ferran with a minute's silence when the UEFA Champions League resumes with the round of 16 next week.

Today's heroes owe most of their riches to the French visionary who was the co-creator of the European Champion Clubs Cup in 1955. He died this week aged 98.

Ferran, who was senior football writer at Parisian sports magazine L'Equipe, will be remembered as a pioneer.

He was largely responsible for the modest launch of a club competition that would become the juggernaut of world sport ... a tournament every club and every footballer would love to be part of, let alone win.

There was no such competition before 1955 as the Europeans were slowly recovering from the ravages of World War II.

After obtaining UEFA's blessing for a new club competition to be run under their auspices, Ferran and his editor Gabriel Hanot devised a format and the rules for the first tournament in 1955/1956.

Champion clubs from Europe's major leagues were invited to participate but the English Football Association forbade champions Chelsea from taking part because they claimed the new competition would disrupt the season. Gwardia Warsaw of Poland took their place.

Like Brexit would show more than half a century later, England even then was not quite sure of its relationship with Europe.

This season's Champions League enters its business end with the knockout phase featuring the elite of European football.

Millions of fans across Europe and the world can expect plenty of fireworks and extraordinary feats as the remaining teams strive to become the 64th winners of the rich competition.

The fans and the players they adore however should remember that the competition owes its success and popularity not only to the likes of Europe's great clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Ajax who set incredibly high standards over the years but also to Ferran and Hanot who realised straight away the potential of a tournament designed to crown the best of the best.

The spark they needed came after a momentous tour match in the West Midlands in December 1954 between English champions Wolverhampton Wanderers and Hungarian giants Honved Budapest along with a spicy newspaper headline.

Honved fielded the bulk of the Hungarian team that in the previous year had crushed England 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 at the Nep Stadion - among them Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Jozsef Bozsik - yet Wolves underlined their quality by coming back from two goals down to win 3-2 at Molineux.

The result of the match under lights whose second half was shown live by the BBC sent reverberations around the world and the next day the Daily Mail ran a headline 'Champions of the World'.

Hanot took exception to that parochial claim and immediately wrote that "Wolves have to play Honved in Budapest before they can claim their invincibility. There also are other renowned clubs like Real Madrid and Milan".

This chain of events unwittingly provided the motivation Ferran and Hanot needed to make their dream come through. They saw a glorious opportunity for a home-and-away knockout competition and in less than two years the first European Cup with 16 teams came to fruition.

Ferran probably had been inspired by the appeal of South America's Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones - the precursor of the Copa Libertadores - and was keen on a European equivalent 'to settle all arguments once and for all'.

In the first ever European Cup match on 4 September 1955 Sporting drew 3-3 with Partizan Belgrade in Lisbon in front of 30,000 spectators.

Alfredo Di Stefano's Real Madrid would become the first winners of the cup after beating Stade Rheims 4-3 in the final at the Parc des Princes in Paris.

It was a modest but highly promising debut for the competition and by the time the second edition kicked off the following year six new countries had applied to take part, requiring preliminary rounds.

English champions Manchester United, obviously recognising how significant, important and lucrative the competition would become, went against the wishes of the FA and in 1956 became the first English side to play in Europe.

The competition would go from strength to strength and capture the imagination of billions of fans. The rest is history.

Round of 16 draw

Roma v Porto
Manchester United v Paris Saint-Germain
Tottenham Hotspur v Borussia Dortmund
Ajax v Real Madrid
Lyon v Barcelona
Liverpool v Bayern Munich
Atletico Madrid v Juventus
Schalke 04 v Manchester City