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Best Champions League Underdogs (2000-2024)

The prestige of the Champions League is incomparable. It’s a time when all of Europe’s hardworking clubs have a chance to scrap it out in a continental tournament. Part of its magic is the leveling of the playing field; no matter how deep a club’s pockets or how massive their stadium is, any team could take it all.

In fact, cheering on an underdog to sweep the finals is something just about every football fan has done. Whether it’s to soothe the pain of a bitter loss or simply an intrigue in chaos, underdogs in the Champions League are a big deal for fans, bettors, and even analysts. Though they’re expected to fail, millions of fans love to see them pull ahead—especially when facing clubs with long legacies.

A Fact Unchanged by Time

Still, even though events like the Champions League are truly modern and larger-than-life spectacles, not all elements of fanfare are new. In fact, one of the most popular things to do for Champions League fans is to wager on the outcome of the finals and group stages — something that sports fans have been doing for millennia.

If you look closely at the history of betting, the very first wagers were placed during early Olympic Games and, later on, during Roman sports contests like gladiator fights and horse races. Fast forward millennia and not too much has changed: audiences fill stadiums, wager on the outcomes, and scream their lungs out to back their team.

But what about the most memorable underdogs? Let’s shift our focus back to the Champions League to cover some of the most riveting contests in the UEFA tournament’s recent history. Starting from 2000, here are three of the event’s most memorable underdogs that made it past group stages.

Porto (Champions, 2003-4)

Those who were around for FC Porto’s incredible 2003-4 season won’t be forgetting it anytime soon. The team was one of the most entertaining to watch thanks to its roster of emerging stars—all of whom were under the leadership of Jose Mourinho.

Not only did Mourinho manage to turn this downtrodden club into Europa Cup winners and domestic league champions, but he then went on to lead them to a strong 3-0 win against AS Monaco in the Champions League finals. Though the team started as underdogs, they ended the season at an all-time high, having pushed past Real Madrid and Man United in the process.

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Chelsea (Champions, 2011-12)

Similar to Porto, Chelsea might not seem like the most obvious choice of underdogs—especially not in their current condition. However, back in the 2011-12 season, the club posted a dismal performance in the Premier League—a delegation-level mishap that had many fans nervous. However, the team turned it around in the Champions League.

Thanks to a missed penalty by Lionel Messi in the semi-finals against FC Barcelona, Chelsea advanced… but they faced Bayern Munich at their home field at Allianz. An 88’ goal from Drogba was the key ingredient, which pushed the game into extra time and eventually ended in 4-2 penalties in Chelsea’s favor. It was the club’s very first Champions League win.

APOEL Nicosia (Quarter-finalists, 2011-12)

That same year, one of Europe’s greatest underdogs was pushing its way through group stages and thrilling the football world. The Cypriot team was expected to fail to advance past group-stage opponents: Porto, ZSP, and Shakhtar Donetsk… but ended up leaving the group with nine points, tied with ZSK.

Their first game out of the group stages saw them flounder early on against Lyon, quickly falling behind 1-0. But APOEL Nicosia battled on, tying the game 1-1 and then punching their ticket to the quarter-finals with a penalty shoot-out win. Though they lost 3-0 to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals, it was a massive performance that Cyprians (fans of APOEL Nicosia and beyond) remember fondly.

Published by Patrick Jane