The aristocrats of European football pop up from time to time in Europe’s premier club competition — and these are the 10 clubs who have defined the Champions League since 1956.
Back in the day, when UEFA started its own European club competition, only the domestic champions were granted access to the European Cup. Yet, it was still the usual suspects winning the Old Big Ears.
Yes, football was more open back then, without the clutch of super clubs dominating each of Europe’s big leagues. There was this feeling, across Europe, that anyone could beat anybody, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t big clubs with big players and resources who were feared by those overseas.
And this is how some of the big boys built their reputations over the years, of being the cream of Europe. By the end of the 20th century, one would see the same old few teams in finals, and even most of the teams who have won the Champions League in the 21st century, are the ones who have won it before.
So the list here is ranked by the number of titles each club has won since the inception of the European Cup/Champions League. However, since there are teams with equal titles that don’t fit into the list, I’ve used the number of matches won to differentiate the teams with the same number of titles.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the Top 10 clubs with the most UEFA Champions League titles in the men’s game.
Nottingham Forest (Wins: 12)
UCL titles: 1978/79, 1979/80
The dynamic duo of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor won Nottingham Forest their two and only European Cup titles. The Tricky Trees played just 20 games in Europe’s premier club competition but were dominant enough in that brief run to win the European Cup trophy.
Forest won their first title beating Swedish club Malmö FF 1-0 in the final of the 1978/79 European Cup, while Clough’s men won their second European Cup the following season, beating German club Hamburg 1-0 in the final at the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid.
In the following seasons, Nottingham Forest competed primarily in the UEFA Cup, reaching the semifinals in 1983/84 and the quarterfinals during the 1995/96 season, before declining steadily and ending up in the EFL Championship, where they currently play.
Chelsea FC (Wins: 96)
UCL titles: 2011/12, 2020/21
A modern force in the UEFA Champions League, Chelsea started taking Europe by force in the mid-2000s and haven’t looked back since. They made it to the semifinals of the 2003/04 and 2004/05 seasons before reaching their first final in 2008. The following season, they were on course to play their second final, but alleged “referee bias” led to Barcelona progressing on Away Goals, with many Chelsea players left protesting on live television, most notably, José Bosingwa and Didier Drogba.
The Royal Blues won their first Champions League title under Roberto Di Matteo in 2012, beating Bayern Munich on penalties at the Allianz Arena. But the rest of the 2010s weren’t as successful in the Champions League for the Blues, though they did win the Europa League twice in that time before winning the 2020/21 Champions League under Thomas Tuchel, which seems to have put them on the right track for the 2020s.
FC Porto (Wins: 117)
UCL titles: 1986/87, 2003/04
Porto will forever be synonymous with José Mourinho tearing down the touchline or upsetting European giants before anyone really knew who this dashing, young and arrogant upstart was. Before their 1986/87 European Cup success, Porto were the only team out of Portugal’s “Big Three” without a continental/international trophy, with Benfica having won two consecutive European Cup titles in 1961 and 1962, while Sporting CP were the Cup Winners’ Cup holders in 1964.
Porto’s first European success came at the expense of Bayern Munich at Praterstadion (now the Ernst-Happel-Stadion), Austria. The Bavarians took the lead in the first half courtesy of a Ludwig Kögl strike before Rabah Madjer and Juary scored two in quick succession, sealing Porto’s first European title. Their second title came under the Portuguese tactician José Mourinho. Mourinho’s team outclassed Didier Deschamps’ AS Monaco 3-0 in the final. Since then, however, the quarter-finals stage is the best Porto have managed to achieve in the Champions League, though they did win the Europa League in 2011.
Top 10 Countdown
#10 SL Benfica (Wins: 118)
UCL titles: 1960/61, 1961/62
As champions of Portugal, Benfica were supposed to participate in the inaugural edition of the European Cup in 1955, but they were not invited by the organisers. Finally, in 1957, Benfica made their European debut against Sevilla in the European Cup, and during the 1961/62 season, they won their first European Cup by beating Barcelona in the final. Goals from José Águas, Mário Coluna and an own goal from Antoni Ramallets helped the club lift their first European Cup.
The following year, already with Eusébio in the lineup, the Hungarian Béla Guttmann guided the team to back-to-back European Cup successes. Benfica met Real Madrid in the final, where a first-half hat-trick from Ferenc Puskás gave Los Blancos the lead, before a brace from both Coluna and Eusébio helped overturn the deficit to 5-3.
Since then, Benfica have made it to the finals of the European Cup on five different occasions (1963, 1965, 1968, 1988 and 1990) but have failed to reconquer Europe each time. They have lost all three UEFA Europa League/Cup finals as well (1983, 2013 and 2014).
To this day, Guttmann’s famous curse seems to hold. “Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European Champions,” said Guttmann in 1962.
#9 Juventus FC (Wins: 152)
UCL titles: 1984/85, 1995/96
Juventus first participated in a UEFA competition in 1958. Since the inception of UEFA in 1954, Juve have competed, as of 2021, in all six confederation tournaments, claiming the title at least once in each of them, which makes the Turinese club the only one worldwide to reach that feat. Juventus have won the competition twice in its history — in 1984/85 and 1995/96.
Juve’s first title came against the mighty Liverpool side of the 80s; a 1-0 win at Heysel Stadium, Brussels, amid the tragedy that happened hours before the final. Their second title came at the expense of Louis van Gaal’s stoic and professional Ajax, after The Old Lady edged the penalty shootout 4-2 in the final of the 1995/96 UEFA Champions League.
Since then, Juve have made it to five UCL finals—most recently during the 2016/17 season—but have lost all of them.
#8 FC Inter Milan (Wins: 90)
UCL titles: 1963/64, 1964/65, 2009/10
Under manager Helenio Herrera, Inter Milan were one of the greatest teams in Europe during the 1960s. Following Herrera’s transformation of Inter, with the team securing their first Serie A title in his third season, came two back-to-back European Cup titles that earned Herrera the title of “Il Mago” (The Wizard).
In 1964, the Nerazzurri reached the European Cup final by beating Borussia Dortmund in the semifinals and Partizan in the quarterfinals. In the final, they met Real Madrid, a team that had previously reached seven out of nine finals; a brace from Mazzola secured a comfortable 3-1 victory for Inter.
The following season, Inter repeated the feat, this time by defeating two-time champions Benfica 1-0 in the final. They then made it to the finals in the 1966/67 and 1971/72 seasons but failed to get past the final hurdle each time.
Inter Milan’s last Champions League title came in 2010 — their treble-winning season. Inter became the one and only Italian club to win the Treble (Serie A, UCL and Coppa Italia). However, over the last decade or so, their performances in continental competitions have met a new low, with their best campaign having led them to a Europa League final defeat to Sevilla in the 2019/20 season.
#7 Manchester United FC (Wins: 160)
UCL titles: 1967/68, 1998/99, 2007/08
Following the Munich disaster, it wasn’t until the 1965/66 season that the Red Devils would compete in Europe’s premier club competition. Manchester United reached the semifinals in their first outing but lost to Partizan 2-1 on aggregate. The following season, they won their first European Cup after beating Benfica 4-1 in the final at Wembley Stadium, with goals from George Best, Bobby Charlton (x2) and Brian Kidd.
Post Sir Matt Busby’s retirement, the Red Devils entered a barren run that saw United getting relegated in 1974. The Ron Atkinson-led Manchester United side of the early 1980s was arguably the finest post the Busby era. However, it wasn’t until 1999 under Sir Alex Ferguson that United would conquer Europe again. In one of the most dramatic Champions League finals of all time, Manchester United beat Bayern Munich 2-1 at Camp Nou with two added-time goals. In 2008, once again under dramatic circumstances, Ferguson’s Red Devils would go on to beat Chelsea on penalties to win their third title.
#6 AFC Ajax (Wins: 110)
UCL titles: 1970/71, 1971/72, 1972/73, 1994/95
AFC Ajax have won the European Cup/Champions League four times, and are one of only three clubs to have won the competition three times in a row.
After losing the 1968/69 European Cup final to AC Milan by a margin of 4-1, Rinus Michels’ Ajax won the 1970/71 European Cup final 2-0 against Greek club Panathinaikos. However, after Ajax’s first European success, Rinus Michels departed to become manager of Barcelona and was replaced by the Romanian Ștefan Kovács.
In Kovács’ first season, Ajax completed a treble of the European Cup, the Eredivisie and a third consecutive KNVB Cup. The following season, Ajax retained the Eredivisie title, won the Intercontinental Cup and retained the European Cup by beating the Italian giants Juventus 1-0.
In 1973, Michels’ Barcelona broke the world transfer record to bring Cruyff to Catalonia. Kovács also departed to become manager of the France men’s national team, signalling the end of Ajax’s golden period.
Ajax’s final Champions League title came in the 1994/95 season under manager Louis van Gaal, when they beat AC Milan 1-0 in the final, with the winning goal scored by an 18-year-old Patrick Kluivert.
#5 FC Barcelona (Wins: 195)
UCL titles: 1991/92, 2005/06, 2008/09, 2010/11, 2014/15
The European Cup was inaugurated in 1955. However, it wasn’t until 1959 that the Blaugrana would compete in Europe’s elite competition after winning the 1957/58 LaLiga title. Until the 1990s, the club had little to no success in the competition apart from reaching the final in 1961 and 1986.
In 1992, Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team Barcelona won the club’s first European Cup with a 1-0 win against Sampdoria. Since then, the Blaugrana have won the competition four more times, cementing themselves as one of the greatest clubs in the competition’s history.
Barça won their second Champions League title under legendary manager Frank Rijkaard, beating Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal 2-1 in the final of the 2006 UEFA Champions League, while Pep Guardiola, a product of Cruyff’s Total Football, brought the club their next two continental titles.
Guardiola’s 2008/09 Champions League-winning side also completed the Treble following their LaLiga and Copa del Rey triumphs, while his men won the club’s fourth Champions League title two years later as they beat Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley Stadium.
Barcelona’s final Champions League triumph came during their Treble-winning 2014/15 season. Under Luis Enrique’s guidance, Barcelona defeated Italian champions Juventus 3-1 at Olympiastadion, Berlin.
In recent seasons, however, Barça have hit a downward spiral, and it will certainly be some time before they can challenge for the European crown again.
#4 Liverpool FC (Wins: 134)
UCL titles: 1976/77, 1977/78, 1980/81, 1983/84, 2004/05, 2018/19
Liverpool are the most successful British club in the competition’s history, having won the European Cup/Champions League six times, while also being the only British club to win fourteen European titles.
Liverpool competed in European competitions for 21 consecutive seasons until the 1985 European Cup final, the occasion of the Heysel Stadium disaster, following which they were banned from European competitions for six seasons.
However, by 1985, Liverpool had already established themselves as one of the greatest football clubs in the continent with four European Cup titles. Following Bill Shankly’s domestic triumphs with the Reds, his assistant Bob Paisley took over as the Liverpool head coach, and after securing the First Division title in 1975/76, Paisley’s Reds made it to the final of the 1976/77 European Cup where they faced a familiar foe in Borussia Mönchengladbach. Liverpool won the final 3-1 to become European champions for the first time. Paisley’s Liverpool retained their crown the following year after beating Belgian outfit Club Brugge 1-0 in the final at Wembley Stadium.
After two disappointing follow-up campaigns, Paisley’s Liverpool won their third European Cup in 1980/81 after beating Spanish giants Real Madrid 1-0 in the final. However, with Bob Paisley retiring from management at the end of the 1982/83 season, Joe Fagan took charge of the Reds from the 1983/84 season.
Fagan’s first season in charge of Liverpool was a successful one, with the Reds winning the Football League Cup and the First Division title, and completing an unprecedented treble with victory in the European Cup final against Italian side AS Roma.
However, following the Heysel Stadium tragedy, all English clubs were banned from UEFA competitions for an indefinite period. Liverpool then returned to Europe’s premier competition in the 1991/92 season, but it would take them another 14 years and a special night in Istanbul to win their fifth European Cup/Champions League as Rafael Benítez’s Liverpool beat the mighty AC Milan side after recovering from a 3-0 deficit to draw level and then clinch the title 3-2 on penalty shootout.
Liverpool’s final UCL title came under present manager Jürgen Klopp after his team emerged victorious in an all-English 2018/19 Champions League final against Tottenham Hotspur, beating the London side 2-0.
#3 FC Bayern Munich (Wins: 220)
UCL titles: 1973/74, 1974/75, 1975/76, 2000/01, 2012/13, 2019/20
Unlike the present-day situation, Bayern Munich weren’t the biggest club in Germany during the 1950s and 1960s. It wouldn’t be until 1967 that Bayern Munich would play their first UEFA-organised European tie. But the club did win the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1966/67 by beating Scottish giants Rangers 1-0 on the night. It was the summer before the start of the 1972/73 season, however, that changed Bayern’s fortune over the coming decades.
Firstly, the West Germany national team, mostly consisting of Bayern and Borussia Mönchengladbach players, dominated the 1972 UEFA European Championships en route to lifting the title. Secondly, Munich hosted the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, with Bayern moving to the Olympiastadion as their new home stadium from the much smaller Grünwalder Stadium after the events got over. A brand new stadium with increased revenue and young talents who were maturing towards greatness meant Bayern were about to enter their golden era.
In 1972/73, the Bavarians lost to Cup-holders Ajax in the quarterfinals, who went on to retain their title, while in the 1973/74 season, Bayern made it to their first European Cup final against Atlético Madrid. After the final ended in a 1-1 draw after extra time, a replay was played where Bayern outclassed and thrashed Atlético 4-0 on the night to win their first of six European Cups.
With Dettmar Cramer installed as the new head coach in January 1975, Bayern set up another European Cup final, this time against English club Leeds United. The Bavarians won the final 2-0, with second-half goals from Franz Roth and Gerd Müller. However, with many key personnel leaving or being past their prime, Bayern never managed to challenge for the Bundesliga title in the 1975/76 season, but encouraged by the promise of big win bonuses, they made it to yet another European Cup final against Saint-Étienne in Glasgow. Franz Roth scored the only goal of the game as Bayern brought home the trophy a third consecutive time, which allowed them to keep the trophy permanently.
However, no one could envisage that Bayern would have to wait another 25 years for their next European title. Bayern lost at the final hurdle in 1981/82, 1986/87 as well as the famous 1998/99 season. They finally won their fourth title against Spanish club Valencia—who lost their second successive final—on penalties after Oliver Kahn saved three of seven Valencia shots to win the shootout 5-4.
Bayern lost three more finals in 2001/02 (Real Madrid), 2009/10 (Inter Milan) and 2011/12 (Chelsea) before lifting their next Champions League titles in 2012/13 (against arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund) and 2019/20 (as Hansi Dieter-Flick’s Bayern beat Thomas Tuchel’s Paris Saint-Germain 1-0 in the final that was held behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
#2 AC Milan (Wins: 126)
UCL titles: 1962/63, 1968/69, 1988/89, 1989/90, 1993/94, 2002/03, 2006/07
Despite the club’s fall from grace over the past decade or so, AC Milan’s status as one of the greatest European football clubs of all time cannot be undermined. The Rossoneri have won several European trophies throughout the history of the European competitions, including seven Champions League/European Cup titles, second only to Real Madrid.
AC Milan’s first appearance in the European Cup came during its inaugural edition in 1955/56, with the club participating as the 1954/55 Serie A champions. They made it to the semifinals in their first attempt but lost to Real Madrid 5-4 on aggregate, who went on to win the first of their five consecutive titles. Milan made it to the final in 1957/58 but again lost to Real Madrid 2-3 at the Heysel Stadium, Brussels.
Milan won their first European Cup in 1962/63 by beating two-time reigning champions Benfica 2-1; Eusébio gave Benfica the lead, but Mazzola scored a brace in the second half to seal a win for the Rossoneri. The club won their second European Cup in 1968/69 after beating Dutch club Ajax 4-1 at the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid. They won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1972/73, but they then underwent a difficult period, enjoying very little continental success until the last couple of years in the 1980s.
Milan defeated the surprise package of the 1988/89 season, Steaua București, to win their third European Cup; the Romanian club had one task too many as Milan demolished them en route to a comfortable 4-0 victory. The club won their second successive and fourth overall Champions League title in 1989/90 after beating Portuguese giants Benfica at Praterstadion in Vienna.
Three years later, Milan made it to the finals once again, but this time lost to French Club Marseille 1-0 at the Olympiastadion, Germany. They won the following season, however, beating Barcelona 4-0 in one of the most one-sided Champions League finals of all time, before losing another final the very next year, this time against Louis van Gaal’s Ajax—who did not lose a single match in any competition that season.
Milan’s next triumph came against Italian rivals Juventus in the 2002/03 Champions League final as they won the tie on penalties following a goalless draw at Old Trafford in Manchester. The Rossoneri also managed to avenge the heartbreak of the 2004/05 Champions League final in Istanbul by beating Liverpool in the 2006/07 Champions League final 2-1 at the Olympic Stadium in Athens.
#1 Real Madrid CF (Wins: 273)
UCL titles: 1955/56, 1956/57, 1957/58, 1958/59, 1959/60, 1965/66, 1997/98, 1999/00, 2001/02, 2013/14, 2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18
The Kings of Europe.
No other club come close to the amount of success Los Blancos have had in Europe’s premier club competition. Champions of Europe for a record thirteen times with a total of 26 continental and international titles, Real Madrid are the most successful club in international football.
The European Cup was inaugurated in the year 1955 with Real Madrid winning its first five editions. However, after winning five European Cups in a row, and again a sixth title in 1966 against Yugoslavian club Partizan in Brussels, the club entered a barren run of form in Europe, with a European Cup final in 1981 being their only highlight until the late 1990s.
Real Madrid’s seventh title came in the 1997/98 season—after a gap of 32 years—as they beat some of the European heavyweights en route to the title. Two years later, at the turn of the century, they clinched their eighth title against fellow Spanish club Valencia with comfortable 3-0 victory, while the 2001/02 season saw them lift their ninth Champions League trophy, with goals from Raúl and Zinedine Zidane sealing the victory against Bayern Leverkusen in the final.
It took Real Madrid twelve years after their ninth UCL win to win a record tenth title as Carlo Ancelotti’s men beat arch-rivals Atlético Madrid 4-1 in extra time, while the arrival of Zinedine Zidane as a manager in 2016 saw Real Madrid become the first club in the modern era to win three successive Champions League trophies. Thus, with thirteen titles, Los Blancos are the undisputed Kings of Europe.