As trophies go, the Champions League is very much a cup that’s won by the very best of the very best. While some cup competitions have a romantic history of plucky upstarts taking on the elites, Europe’s most illustrious contest is more often than not won by the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, or Liverpool.
But if you dig beneath the surface, you’ll find that every once in a while an unfancied team makes it deep into the latter rounds of the tournament. And sometimes, very rarely, they’ll go ahead and win the whole thing.
5: AS Monaco, 2016/17
While fans of European football will point to PSG as the powerhouse of the French league, it’s AS Monaco who perhaps came closer to bringing the biggest prize on the continent back to France with their dazzling cup run of 2016/17.
With a team including Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva and Radamel Falcao, Monaco breezed through Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund before finally being stopped by that year’s runners-up Juventus in the semi-finals. Paris Saint-Germain might have made the final three years later, but they had none of the swagger or confidence of this magnificent Monaco side.
4: Leeds United, 2001/02
At the turn of the millennium, the Premier League was packed with talent. Between 1999 and 2010, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea would all play in the showpiece final. And in 2002, Leeds United came within 90 minutes of doing the same. Having seen off Barcelona, AC Milan and Lazio, Leeds’ fairytale run would finally come to an end against a determined Valencia side.
And while Leeds’ captain Rio Ferdinand and talisman Harry Kewell would go on to lift the trophy for Manchester United and Liverpool respectively, the Yorkshire club would find themselves playing in two very different finals soon after. The 2006 Championship playoff final, and the 2008 League One playoff final. From losing to Valencia to losing to Doncaster Rovers in just 6 years. What a rollercoaster.
3: Borussia Dortmund, 2012/13
While our last two underdogs made it to the semi final, Jurgen Klopp’s heroic Borussia Dortmund team went one step further in the 12/13 season. While some pointed to an easy path to the semis against Shakhtar Donetsk and Malaga, Dortmund proved their worth by seeing off perennial challengers Real Madrid over two legs.
Then, at Wembley, an all-German affair ended the way these things tend to end for Dortmund. First Bayern knocked them out of the domestic cup in February, then Bayern beat them to the title by April, before finally Bayern Munich beat them in the Champions League final in May.
2: FC Schalke, 2010/11
Spanish legend Raul won three Champions League titles with Real Madrid. Bayern Munich legend Manuel Neuer would go on to win two Champions League titles with the German giants. But for one season, the two found themselves playing together at Schalke 04, and the veteran striker and up-and-coming goalkeeper would combine for a magnificent underdog story.
Topping their group and vanquishing Valencia and Inter Milan, Schalke would only be stopped in the semi-final by Manchester United. Given the ease with which Guardiola’s Barcelona dispatched that season’s English champions, you dread to think what they’d have done to the team who finished 14th in that year’s Bundesliga.
1: FC Porto, 2003/04
Finally, a real fairytale. The other teams on our list all came close, but never quite managed to take home the trophy. Which means that the best-ever Champions League underdog has to be the side that went one step further.
Managed by a young up-and-coming manager called Jose Mourinho, Porto would vanquish Manchester United, Lyon and Deportivo before taking on the bookies’ favourites Monaco. It wasn’t even close. 3-0 didn’t flatter Porto, and “The Special One” would claim his first Champions League title.
Jose would go on to win the trophy a second time with Inter Milan, but Porto have yet to recapture the glory of their great underdog victory.
Whether you’re backing an underdog or a favourite, make sure you grab your Champions League tickets as soon as you can. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be there for the next great Cinderella story?