The Champions League

The European Cup was founded in 1955 to determine the best soccer team on the Continent. Each year the champions from the national leagues would fight it out. Real Madrid quickly proved dominant. They won the first 5 competitions and have won nine times over all. A.C. Milan has won six titles, and Liverpool F.C. has five. (The winners’ list is here.) The Cup changed its name to the Champions League in 1992. It now lasts from fall to spring (The final is in May).

For all the info, scores, and live commentary, check the official website for UEFA. Here in the States, ESPN2 usually plays one or two games each match-day. Check Soccertv.com for listings. The ESPN website is also doing live streaming of all the games, but it costs money.

The competition doesn’t just include league champions. There is a complicated selection process for the 32 teams. The big leagues get more bids, while some of the smaller teams have to go through a qualifying stage. Then the teams are divided into eight groups of four. They each play six matches, and by spring, the field is cut down to 16 teams, who play in a knock-out competition. In May we have a champion. Here is a group by group preview of this year’s field.

The Champions League, of course, is loaded with big-money clubs, like Manchester United and Real Madrid. And the financial windafall that comes with winning further separates the haves from the have-nots.

But there is still room for a few little guys. Ukraine has two teams in this year, the Dynamo Kyiv powerhouse and Shakthar from Donentsk. There are also two Greek teams, Olympiakos and AEK from Athens. If you like vowels you might prefer the Romanian team Steaua Becharest. In their opening game, Steaua crushed Kiev 4-1 in Ukraine. Weaua!

The internationalism of the competition makes for mixed allegiances. My brother watched the opening match between Barcelona and Levski, the Bulgarian champions, with a Bulgarian. But he hailed from a different part of Sofia. Levski was a hated rival, and he had always been a Barcelona fan. He was torn, but pulled for Levski. They lost 5-0.

The marquee match-ups in the group stage are the two matches between Barcelona and English champs Chelsea, possibly the two best teams in the world. They have four played intense, wonderful matches the last two years (Here’s a video from last season).

The Barca-Chelsea match will be filled with great players including Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi for Barca and Shevchenko and Michael Ballack for Chelsea. But who will be the breakout star this year? The soccer blog The Offside loves Milan’s young Frenchman Yoann Gourcuff.

And to get you ready, here is the official anthem.

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