Match-fixing controversy, stunning upsets and the Battle of Britain: The Champions League’s eventful debut in 1992/93

Updated: 13/04/2024

If you’re going to do something for the first time, you might as well make it memorable. So when the maiden edition of the Champions League rolled into town in 1992-93, a backdrop of alleged bribes, Anglo-Saxon rivalry and a sprinkling of the era’s most iconic stars would make it difficult to forget.

A name change from the European Cup to the Champions League now marks a watershed moment between two eras, but at the time there wasn’t too much that was explicitly new about the competition other than the title.

Despite being the first year with ‘League’ in the name, 1992-93 was, in fact, the second season with the group stage format, splitting the eight quarter-finalists into two pots of four. And while purists still argued that the new structure reduced the drama of the latter stages, the ensuing action meant that the matches still rile up extreme reactions more than 25 years on.

Much less controversial was the tournament’s first preliminary round since 1982. With the league winners from across Europe automatically entered to the first round in previous years, the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia resulted in more countries entering clubs than ever before.

This meant that the four teams to make it through the two-legged ties in late summer became their fledging nations’ first official representatives in Europe’s top competition. None of Skonto from Latvia, Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv, Olimpia Ljubljana of Slovenia, or Tavriya Simferopol from Ukraine would make it past the first round, but their inclusion was notable nonetheless.

Holders Barcelona came close to being a first-round casualty themselves, only scraping through 1-0 against Norwegian side Viking Stavanger courtesy of an 86th-minute winner by Guillermo Amor in the first leg.

English champions Leeds cut it even closer against Stuttgart. After a 3-0 defeat in Germany, the Whites had a mountain to climb back at Elland Road and while a 4-1 win in the second leg saw them fall short on away goals, they got a reprieve after it was ruled that die Roten had exceeded the maximum number of foreign players. A play-off was held at the Camp Nou to settle the tie, with Gordon Strachan and Carl Shutt on target to give Leeds a 2-1 victory.

They’d have no such luck in the next round. After being drawn against Rangers, both sides of the border prepared for a tie dubbed the Battle of Britain. So it only seemed fitting that a Scotsman should open the scoring for the English club when Gary McAllister netted within the first minute of the first leg.

Unfortunately for Leeds that joy was short-lived. Goalkeeper John Lukic’s own goal levelled things up, before Ally McCoist secured a Rangers win at Ibrox, then repeated the trick to get the winner in Leeds two weeks later to send the Gers through 4-2 on aggregate.

Barcelona also tumbled out before the group stage could begin. Los Cules appeared to be coasting through against CSKA Moscow with a two-goal aggregate advantage in the second leg at the Camp Nou, but three goals either side of half-time turned the tie on its head and sent the Russians through.

The remaining eight sides went into the group stage, with favourites Milan – starring Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Baresi – cruising to the top of Group B with six wins from six. With only the mini-league winners reaching the final, runners up IFK Goteberg couldn’t even claim to have come close due to the margin between the Italians and the rest.

Group A wasn’t so straightforward. While Barca’s conquerors, CSKA Moscow, failed to win a single match, Marseille and Rangers duked it out for top spot until the final round of fixtures.

After a 1-1 draw between the sides in France in the penultimate group match, only Marseille’s superior goal difference split the two teams. But unbeknown to the watching public at the time, there was more than just the Ligue 1 side’s star-studded line up playing against Rangers.

Ahead of the match between the two sides, Gers striker Mark Hateley claims he was offered a bribe to sit out of the fixture. When he declined, Hateley was duly sent off under dubious circumstances against Club Bruges in the game before and suspended anyway, with the forward later saying he “knew something had gone off there” and that Rangers “felt 100% cheated”.

While Hateley and Rangers were left frustrated in Belgium – despite winning – Marseille were running up the goals with a 6-0 trouncing of CSKA, with some of the Russians later claiming they’d also been offered bribes. Despite that, with Rangers at home to CSKA and the French side away in Bruges in the final round, the Scots could still make a case for being favourites.

Alen Boksic’s strike in the opening two minutes proved to be enough for Marseille in Belgium, once more to rumours of match fixing. Nevertheless, Rangers couldn’t keep up their end of the bargain, and laboured to a goalless draw in Glasgow.

That left only Milan in Marseille’s way of becoming the first French team to win a European trophy. And regardless of what had (or hadn’t) gone before to guarantee their passage to the final, beating the Italians would take some doing, after they’d scored 23 and conceded just one goal to reach the final.

However, a fantastic rearguard action marshalled by Marcel Desailly and Basile Boli, and backed up by Fabian Barthez meant just one goal would do it. With Boli’s header shortly before the break enough to seal a historic win.

But the drama didn’t end there. Match-fixing claims in France emerged against Marseille president, Bernard Tapie, centring on a league match against Valenciennes where it was found that he’d paid for them to throw the match. Tapie’s actions, to guarantee his side won the French league earlier so they had longer to prepare for the Champions League final, meant Marseille were stripped of their domestic title and relegated to Ligue 2.

While they were also banned from defending their Champions League crown and from playing in the World Club Championship the following year, Marseille’s victory was never chalked off because foul play was never proved in European competition. Meaning, even to this day, the Champions League’s first outing remains shrouded with controversy.

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