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The tournament was inaugurated in 1955, at the suggestion of the French sports journalist and editor of L'Équipe Gabriel Hanot, who conceived the idea after receiving reports from his journalists over the highly successful Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones of 1948. As a reaction to a declaration by the British press on the part of Wolverhampton Wanderers being "Champions of the World" after a successful run of European friendlies in the 1950s, Hanot finally managed to convince UEFA to put into practice a continent-wide tournament. The tournament was conceived as a competition for winners of the European national football leagues, as the European Champion Clubs' Cup, abbreviated to European Cup.
The competition began as the 1955–56 using a two-leg knockout format where the teams would play two matches, one at home and one away, and the team with the highest overall score qualifying for the next round of the competition. Until 1997, entry was restricted to the teams that won their national league championships, plus the current European Cup holder. In the 1992–93 season, the format was changed to include a group stage and the tournament was renamed the UEFA Champions League. There have since been numerous changes to eligibility for the competition, the number of qualifying rounds and the group structure. In 1997–98, eligibility was expanded to include the runners-up from some countries according to UEFA's coefficient ranking list. The qualification system has been restructured so that national champions from lower ranked countries have to take part in one or more qualifying rounds before the group stages, while runners-up from higher ranked countries enter in later rounds. Up to four clubs from the top-ranked countries are currently given entry to the competition.
Between 1960 and 2004, the winner of the tournament qualified for the now defunct Intercontinental Cup against the winner of the Copa Libertadores of South America. Since then, the winner automatically qualifies for the FIFA-organised Club World Cup with other winners of continental club championships.