Tomorrow night, Sunday 23 August, many weeks later than usual, the final of the Champions League takes place. Bayern Munich will take on Paris Saint-German in Portugal for Europe’s premier club trophy. It will be the second time that a German team has played a French team in the final. The last time was in 1976, when the competition was still known as the European Cup, and Bayern beat St Etienne.
Most years the final features at least one team from the top leagues in Spain, England and Italy, the three countries that I will refer to in this piece as The Big Three. Between them, teams from The Big Three have won the trophy 40 times (Spain 18, England 13, Italy 12). In the 64 previous Champions League and European Cup finals The Big Three have been represented in all but 8 of them. The last time there were no teams from Spain, England or Italy in the final was 2013, when Bayern beat another German team (Borussia Dortmund) to win the title for the fifth time. The only other time it has happened this century was 2004, when Porto (managed by Jose Mourinho) beat Monaco (who play in the French Ligue 1) to win the trophy. Tomorrow’s game will be the 9th time in 65 years that two teams from outside The Big Three have madee it to the final.
This season’s competition was notable for an even rarer occurrence: no teams from The Big Three even made it to the semi-final. The only English team left at the quarter-final stage (Manchester City) lost to Lyon (France), who had knocked out Italian champions Juventus in the previous round. In the other quarter-finals, Paris Saint-Germain beat Atalanta (Italy) and German teams (Bayern and RB Leipzig) knocked out Spanish teams (Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, respectively). This set me wondering: how many times have teams from The Big Three failed to make it to the semi-finals of the European Cup / Champions League? You might want to take this as a challenge and work out the answer for yourself. If so, don’t read too far ahead for now. The answer appears immediately after the next three paragraphs.
Before we get to the answer, here are some reflections about the other years when the final was contested by teams from outside The Big Three. It first happened in 1970, when Feyenoord (Netherlands) beat Scottish champions Celtic. The following year another Dutch team (Ajax) beat Greek champions Panathanaikos to win the trophy for the first time. As mentioned above, it also happened in 1976 when St Etienne lost to Bayern.
After the Heysel disaster in 1985, English clubs were banned from European competitions for five years. During that time there were two finals when no teams from The Big Three (or, technically, The Big Two) were represented: 1987, when Porto (Portugal) beat Bayern and 1988 when PSV (Netherlands) beat Benfica (Portugal). During the 1990s, when the ban on English clubs had been lifted, the only final that featured teams outside The Big Three was in 1991: Red Star Belgrade (Yugoslavia at the time, now Serbia) beat Marseille (France) on penalties. As mentioned above, the finals of 2004 and 2013 also featured teams from countries outside The Big Three.
So, before 2020, how many times have teams from Spain, England and Italy failed to make it to the semi-finals? As you have probably worked out, the answer is a subset of the 8 times when none of The Big Three were represented in the final (1970, 1971, 1976, 1987, 1988, 1991, 2004 and 2013). It has to be somewhere between 0 and 8.
The answer is: once, in 1991. The beaten semi-finalists were Bayern Munich (who lost to Red Star Belgrade) and Russian champions Spartak Moscow (who lost to Marseille).
My knowledge of previous finals is pretty good. I didn’t have to look up any of the finalists from 1970 onwards. I was not so confident about the 1950s and 1960s. My knowledge of semi-finalists, however, was minimal. There was only one year out of the 8 listed in brackets above where I didn’t have to look up whether The Big Three was represented: 1970, when Leeds United (English champions, and the team I have followed since the 1960s) lost to Celtic. Other than that, my memories of the semi-finals are much hazier than of the finals themselves. Maybe I should have remembered that Chelsea were beaten by Monaco at the semi-final stage in 2004. I didn’t, although I was probably aware of it at the time. Similarly, I would have seen or read something about the 2013 semi-finals, when Spanish clubs lost to their German rivals: Real Madrid were beaten by Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona lost to Bayern Munich.
For the record, and because I have spent so much time looking it up, here are the beaten semi-finalists from Spain, England and Italy in the years when teams outside The Big Three contested the final:
1970 Leeds United (England) lost to Celtic
1971 Atletico Madrid (Spain) lost to Ajax
1976 Real Madrid (Spain) lost to Bayern
1987 Real Madrid (Spain) lost to Bayern, again
1988 Real Madrid (Spain) lost to PSV
2004 Chelsea (England) lost to Monaco AND Deportivo la Corunna (Spain) lost to Porto
2013 Barcelona (Spain) lost to Bayern AND Real Madrid lost to Borussia Dortmund, for a change
All of this Champions League research has got me thinking about another feature of tomorrow’s game. It will be the first appearance for Paris Saint-Germain in a Champions League final. Six other teams this century have made it to this stage of the competition for the first time, and all of them have lost. I will reflect further on this after the game and post a link here.
UPDATE: Here it is: Champions League finals and first-time losers.