The EHF Champions League for both men and women began its life in 1993/94, making the current season the 30th year of the premium European competition.
The tournament has evolved in the last three decades, with several changes to its form and structure making it the competition it is today.
EHF Chief Sports Officer Markus Glaser has been involved with the EHF Champions League from its inception. It replaced the European Champions Cup, which had been run by the International Handball Federation since 1956.
As Glaser explains, the original form of the Champions League looked very different from the current structure.
“A group stage was introduced already in the very first season in order to offer more matches to the top teams,” Glaser says. “After an elimination round, a qualification round and a last 16 round there were eight teams in two groups with the two winners of the groups playing the Champions League final in home and away games.”
This was the main difference from the Champions Cup. The EHF adopted the same system for both the men’s and women’s Champions Leagues.
“It was very well received because the clubs were eager to compete on an international top level and the group stage offered them a perfect platform with home and away matches that could be planned over several months,” Glaser continues.
The first major change to the playing system was introduced in 1996/97, when the group stage was expanded to four groups of four teams followed by quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final. The knockout rounds were played as home and away matches – much like the final stages of today’s EHF European Cup.
“Here It is important to remember that there were a considerable number of new countries emerging from the political changes in Europe at the time, especially in the former Yugoslavia where there were four to five new national champions on a high level. We therefore needed to adapt our playing systems to these developments and find new formats to further develop the Champions League,” says Glaser.
But the biggest change to the playing format of the competition came with the move to the EHF FINAL4 format – initially for men in 2010, and then women in 2014. The EHF FINAL4 replaced the home and away matches that previously decided the winners.
“These finals became bigger and bigger, and the interest of the media and the tension was enormous. However, the halls were sometimes not appropriate any more and the organisation became more and more demanding considering that it was a Champions League final,” Glaser says.
The LANXESS arena in Cologne was chosen as the venue for the EHF FINAL4, and Glaser says huge efforts were made in creating the fan experience and a professional environment for the matches. Four years later, the Women’s EHF FINAL4 took place for the first time in Budapest. Both tournaments have consistently been a huge success, with full arenas and extensive media coverage.
Apart from playing systems, Glaser identifies the introduction of a unified floor as the biggest development in the 30 years of the Champions League.
“The unified floor was the first step into an era of a step-by-step more professional set-up of the handball courts, especially in the Champions League, which led to a unified appearance of the competition regardless of the venue and the country where a game was played. A further step was the Champions League hymn, a dedicated Champions League ball and many other improvements on and off the court,” he adds.
Of course, having witnessed the competition’s development over so many years, Glaser has lots of fond memories. He says the early years were exciting as the EHF fought to make the Champions League seasons stable.
“Then there was the Copenhagen-Barcelona quarter-final game in the Parken football stadium in Copenhagen in April 2012 with 21,000 spectators which was a very unique occasion of a handball game in a football arena which will stay in my memory,” he remembers.
“But I guess, overall on the men’s side I would go for the first EHF FINAL4 in Cologne in 2010 and that Saturday as the first day of competition in an arena with 20,000 spectators, with the feeling that all efforts of the complete season and of the preparation for that weekend paid off with a fantastic atmosphere where you could feel the excitement of the whole arena to just be there and be part of that historic moment.
“Of course, it was also a cool moment to realise that, looking back, the move to change from a home and away format of the finals to a FINAL4 format was exactly the right decision,” Glaser says.
The EHF Champions League’s development is far from over. Glaser says it would be good to continue developing the arenas used, encouraging more fans to come to games – especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Digital presentation of the matches is also a constant evolution.
With the current playing system of two groups of eight teams now in its third season, Glaser says he is happy that this is working.
“However, who knows what findings the next two or three years will bring. The EHF is always trying to be ahead of development and we proved over the last 30 years how capable we are in adapting to new situations and developments,” he concludes.
However, who knows what findings the next two or three years will bring. The EHF is always trying to be ahead of development and we proved over the last 30 years how capable we are in adapting to new situations and developments.