In 1991, UEFA entirely reordered the model of what had then become known simply as the European Cup. For years it had been solely a knockout tournament for the continent’s best teams, and the qualification format was an egalitarian sweep across the region. By the time the 1990-91 tournament rolled around, there were 31 teams representing 30 nations. The exception were the Italians, since Napoli qualified the year before and Milan was granted passage because it was the defending champion.
The next year, the 1991-92 season, a group stage was added, and after that, in 1992-93, it became known as the Champions League, and the race to modern day was on.
The group stage has its benefits of course, but it is also a massive boon to bigger clubs. American fans know this probably better than anyone. The MLS regular season is a slog, like most any other league in the world, but the playoffs? Now we split hairs. There is skill involved, of course, but the playoffs are a hat toss in the wind precisely because it condenses everything into a phone booth and more or less casts off seven months of work. What you’d done in May and June and August is largely immaterial in November. And the wonky, unpredictable path of results reflect the reality. You never really know.
But tack on a group stage to the mouth of that narrow knockout river upstream and you make life much easier for big clubs. It’s much more simple for an outsize payroll to overwhelm a more modest one over six games in lieu of one or two. It’s why only a few teams win NBA titles. And this, mixed with an ever increasing gap between the top 15 or so clubs and the rest, is why we haven’t had a what-just-happened European champion since Red Star Belgrade in 1991.
And this, also, is why the modern day Europa League is so much fun.