Three teams who have been champions of Europe, and are no longer at the top

champions of Europe

If you look at the list of teams that have won Europe’s top soccer honours, and specifically look only at the end of the 1950s and then the last 20 years, you could easily believe that only one team has ever been the best on the entire continent. Real Madrid won the first five European Cups, and have also won five of the last ten editions of its successor tournament, the Champions’ League. In 68 years of playing in the tournament, they have won it 13 times, which is nearly 20% of all the finals that have been played in that time. But that does mean that there was a run of 53 years in which they only won it three times. There’s no doubt that they’re at the top these days, but what about all the other teams who’ve been champions?

Most of the names on the list are also household names: Liverpool, Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus and others. But if you look back through history, there are some teams who have won it once, maybe been to the final again, but now are a long way from that pinnacle. It’s worth looking at what their stories are: how they won it then, and why the odds on them winning it now are some of the longest you’ll see at sites found on It tells us a lot about the evolution of the sport in Europe.

Celtic (1967)

If you are ever asked in a quiz “Which was the first British team to win the European Cup?” and assume that it must have been an English team, you’d be surprised to learn that Celtic brought the trophy back to Glasgow one year before Manchester United became the first English team to win it. A 2-1 win in Lisbon against Inter Milan allowed a Celtic side – all of whom were born within a 30-mile radius of the club’s home ground – to make history. In the present day, Celtic are currently the stronger of Glasgow’s two clubs, but Scottish football has not kept up with developments in tactics and player training or, to be frank, finance. They played in the Champions’ League this season, but were eliminated in the group stage.

Nottingham Forest (1979-80)

Promoted to the Premier League at the end of last season, Nottingham Forest thus ended a run of 23 years outside the English top flight. It’s hard to believe that at one time they were the best in Europe, but by winning the trophy in 1979 and then retaining it under Brian Clough, they certainly were. As Clough’s health began to fail, so did Forest’s, and in 1993 – his final season as boss – they were relegated from the Premier League. Between then and 1999, they yo-yoed between divisions, before a long spell out of the elite. Now managed by Steve Cooper, they have a fighting chance of remaining in the top rank for another season.

Steaua Bucharest (1986)

To look at European football in the round in 2023, you would be shocked to learn that Steaua – currently third in Europe’s 25th-best league – were ever champions of the continent. It was pretty surprising when it happened, too. They played Barcelona, a team adored across the continent, and were expected to lose handily. Steaua defended heroically through first 90, then an additional thirty minutes, to draw the game 0-0. In the resultant penalty shootout, goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam saved every penalty taken by a Barcelona player, and the European Cup went to Eastern Europe for the first time.

Ownership disputes and the loss of the best Romanian players to other leagues have meant no repeat for Steaua, but they’re still one of the best teams in Romania.

Stacy Tibbs