English football club Liverpool won UEFA's so-called Champions League competition last night - the highest honour a league club can achieve. The victory, in a penalty shoot-out after a thrilling 3-3 draw with AC Milan, was the fifth time that Liverpool have won Europe's top trophy. They now get to keep a replica of the famous trophy cup in recognition of their achievement.
While the actual trophy - one of the largest major sporting trophy cups - has remained the same, the format of the competition has changed over the years. Liverpool's four previous titles were achieved in a two-leg knockout competition that involved only the league champions of each of the European countries taking part. Under that format, the current holders of the trophy were eligible to compete in the competition the following season. In 1992 UEFA changed the format and name of the competition, launching the misnamed 'Champions League'. This competition involved not just the domestic league champions from each country, but also the runners-up and, in the case of the more successful countries, the third and even fourth-placed teams. This entry of non-champions, along with the introduction of group stages, helped ensure that the bigger, more popular and more televisually appealing teams were given more chances to qualify and progress. These moves have helped contribute to the current problem faced by organisers UEFA and by the English FA - the new champions are not eligible to defend their title next season. The reason for this is that the top four teams in the English Premiership qualify for the next season's 'Champions' League competition, and Liverpool finished fifth. UEFA say that the decision to allow the top four league teams to enter the 'Champions' League is up to the national authority, in England's case the FA. The FA say that the rules for selection were decided at the start of the season, and they cannot change them now to allow the real European champions, Liverpool, to take part in the so-called Champions League. This embarassing situation has arisen due to the authorities' tinkering with the format of the competition in a bid to satisfy the powerful big clubs and television companies. Unfortunately it has now devalued this showpiece event and award.
Speaking after the victory, Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez said: "It's quite unbelievable to even consider that a side who will play in the European Super Cup as well as the World Club Championship next season should not be allowed back into the Champions League." He continued: "We have won the trophy. It is common sense that the winner should defend the title." Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry said: "I think we have to be given a shot. We are worthy champions and I think that's what the world will say."