Evolution of UEFA Club Competitions

europa league winners
United celebrate victory against Ajax in Stockholm, 2017

With the 2016/17 Europa League victory, United became the fifth team to win the UEFA ‘European Treble’ after Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Ajax and Juventus. It’s a feat that comprises of the Champions League, Europa League and Cup Winners Cup, and one that few teams can still achieve due to the latter competition being defunct.

The Cup Winners Cup is one of a number of previous competitions now merged with the current crop, or discontinued entirely, whilst UEFA look to expand the remaining few at every opportunity. So what does the history of European Club Competitions look like?

UEFA Champions League (European Cup)

The original and main event is the European Cup, started in 1955 and rebranded as the Champions League in 1992. Ironically, the newer format of the tournament better describes the original criteria, with European league champions the only participants in a straight knockout tournament.

This saw Real Madrid win the first five European Cup finals, with United entering in 1956. After the tragedy of the Munich air crash in 1958, Busby finally led the team to glory, beating Benfica 4-1 in ’68. This was the first of United’s three titles, with wins in 1999 and 2008, as well as runners up to Barcelona twice in 2009 & 2011.

In 1992 the rebrand to the ‘Champions League’ introduced a group stage, as well as expanding to include the runners up of the top 8 European Leagues from the 97/98 season. Since then more and more teams from each nation have been included, with England now contributing up to five each season. UEFA have plans to further “expand” the competition in 2024, somewhat controversially though, seeing a protected top league for the biggest clubs, with promotion/relegation for just 8 out of 32 teams.

Inter-Cities Fairs Cup

The first of the discontinued competitions, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup started in 1955 alongside the European Cup however was not organised by UEFA. With a bit of a unique backstory, the Fairs Cup was exclusively for teams from cities hosting trade fairs, with the friendlies organised to promote the cause. Initially operating a ‘one city, one team’ rule, the competition also expanded to include 64 teams (from just 12 in 1955) including league runners up.

The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup ran until 1971, when it was replaced by the more structured UEFA Cup. United competed it in just once, the 1964/65 season, losing in the semi-final to Hungarian side Ferencv√°rosi.

UEFA Europa League (UEFA Cup)

The Fairs Cup’s ‘one city, one team’ rule was scrapped when the competition became the UEFA Cup in 1971, though the Football League still tried to enforce this until 1975 – when Everton almost missed out as Liverpool had already qualified. The UEFA Cup became the second tier European competition, with teams who’d missed out on the European Cup and Cup Winners Cup qualifying based on their league position.

For many of the top European teams it’s always been seen as just that, the secondary cup. United had played it in a few times in the 70s and 80s but had a fairly dominant position in the Champions League for much of the 90s and 00s. The UEFA Cup was expanded and rebranded to the Europa League in 2009 and our first taste of this was in 2011/12 after finishing third in the Champions League group. We’ve since played in it in 3 of the 7 seasons since Ferguson retired, which accurately shows the decline in performance. The 2016/17 win did complete the set for United though.

The Europa League has rounds and rounds of qualifying, with a group stage featuring 48 teams until 2021, now 32, and an extra knockout round due to third place Champions League teams dropping into it. It’s enticed by the winners entering the next season’s Champions League, as well as leading to a third tier competition, launched in 2021.

UEFA (European) Cup Winners’ Cup

Another of the discontinued competitions, the European Cup Winner’s Cup was launched in 1960 (renamed the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup in 1994). This saw the winners of the domestic cups in European leagues compete, making it more prestigious at the time than the UEFA Cup/Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which it ran alongside. A straight knockout tournament, like the original European Cup, there were four rounds of two-legged ties before the final.

It provided, for some, one of United’s finest hours, with tens of thousands of fans travelling to Rotterdam to see a Mark Hughes’ double defeat Barcelona 2-1. This was United’s first European title since the 1968 European Cup and was a catalyst for the next 20 years of dominance for Fergie. The Cup Winners Cup was merged with the UEFA Cup in 1999 as the expansion of the Champions League meant that less of Europe’s top teams were competing in the CWC.

UEFA Super Cup

The ‘European Charity Shield’, the UEFA Super Cup, has taken place since 1972 and has traditionally seen the winners of the top two European competitions face each other. Originally this was the winners of the European Cup and the Cup Winners Cup. After the CWC was merged with the UEFA Cup in 1999, the second spot was then taken by the winners of the latter.

From 1972 to 1997 it was a two-legged final, taking place at each team’s home ground, before it became a single match hosted in Monaco (home of UEFA) from 1998-2012. From 2013 onwards the Super Cup has been on a money spinning tour of Europe, which saw us play Real Madrid in Macedonia in 2017. United have competed 4 times; after the ’91 Cup Winners Cup, ’99 and ’08 Champions League and ’17 Europa League wins, with just the one victory in 1991.

Intercontinental Cup

Whilst not solely a UEFA competition, the Intercontinental Cup was launched in 1960 together with the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL). It saw the winners of the respective top tier tournaments, the European Cup and South American Copa Libertadores, face off for the title of ‘World Champions’. Between 1960-80 this was a two legged final, before sponsorship from Toyota saw it hosted as a single match in Japan.

The European and South American leagues were recognised as the strongest, hence the ultimate title for the winners, however in 2004 FIFA replaced the Intercontinental Cup with an expanded competition with other confederations. United competed in the competition twice, losing in 1968 to Estudiantes from Argentina before becoming World Champions in 1999 after a 1-0 win against Brazilian team Palmeiras.

FIFA Club World Cup (Championship)

The FIFA Club World Cup officially replaced the Intercontinental Cup in 2005, bringing together the champions of the six world football confederations. It had a controversial soft launch in 2000, titled the FIFA Club World Championship, which saw United drop out of that season’s FA Cup to compete. This has a whole side story, but effectively saw United (as European Cup holders) encouraged to enter by the English FA in order to help their 2006 World Cup big. It’s also led to United being accused of ‘killing’ the FA Cup ever since…

The 2000 cup was competed between 8 teams and won by Brazilian’s Corinthians, with United failing to make it out of the group stages. It’s almost always been won by the European entrant since, with United victorious in the 2008 competition; a second world title (one more than England). FIFA have of course made suggestions to expand it beyond the current 7 teams to include 24, every four years in place of the FIFA Confederations Cup. This would see the Club World Cup take place in 2021, and the summer before every World Cup.

UEFA Intertoto Cup

Last in the discontinued list is the UEFA Intertoto Cup, which originally started in 1961 but officially became a UEFA competition in 1995. It’s also the only European competition that United never competed in. The history of the competition is a little complex .

The Intertoto Cup was a competition for teams who hadn’t qualified for any of the major European competitions. Dubbed the “Cup for the Cupless” by some, any team could apply to enter and would be granted a position if they were the highest placed in their league who hadn’t qualified for another UEFA competition – so long as they had applied!

By the time UEFA took control of the competition in 1995 many English clubs were disillusioned with it, however qualification to the UEFA Cup was added an incentive for three teams. The competition ceased to exist in 2008, with clubs qualifying for the early rounds of the Europa League instead.

UEFA Europa Conference League

A new contender in this list is the recently launched UEFA Europa Conference League, which from 2021 exists as the third tier of European club competition. The Conference League is aimed more at the lower-ranked UEFA member associations, with three rounds of qualifiers supplemented by teams dropping out of Europa League qualifiers. Certainly not a glamorous trophy for any of England’s “big six” of which one is likely to feature, though the winners will qualify for the following season’s Europa League.


So of the 9 total competitions UEFA have launched or been involved in over the past 65 years, just over half still exist. The rest have all been rolled into the remaining competitions with UEFA clearly looking to streamline proceedings. That’s probably not the best way to describe it though, as the Champions League, Europa League and Club World Cup have all continued to expand, and this looks set to continue from 2021 and beyond with the Europa Conference League. It means more matches and more demands on both players and fans, but more lucrative sponsorship and television deals for those at the top. The challenge for UEFA is now to satisfy the top European clubs and continue to quash their threats to breakaway into a “Super League”.

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