Many great stars of the game make the move to the bench when their playing careers end, some aiming to match their on-field European heroics.
Elite players, those who stand out and lead their teams to victory in the most competitive and challenging competitions, are often supported by elite managers. And in the top club competition on the planet, UEFA’s Champions League, we get to see some of the world’s best, both on the field of play and in the technical area just off it.
Saudi riches aside, the world’s top talent continues to gravitate towards Europe, and the same holds true for coaches as well as the players. Forging a career at the summit of The Beautiful Game, proving yourself against the cream of the crop, and winning as much silverware and titles as you can. To varying degrees, each coach leaves their mark on how the teams play, imposing their ideas and striving to ensure that the players understand and execute them. Many of these great coaches, of course, were footballers themselves in the past, and some of them know what it’s like to reach the pinnacle of success with their boots on.
Champions League coaches who were champions as players
As the 2023/24 Champions League edition gets underway, there are several current coaches entering it who know what it’s like to lift Ol’ Big Ears, not only from the sidelines.
For many, Josep Guardiola is considered the best coach in the world. Titles are the quantifiable measure that backs the success of the beautiful and offensive style of football his teams tend to exhibit, filled with control and creativity. The playing philosophy that Pep has successfully instilled in his teams throughout his coaching career is a legacy of his time as a player.
Guardiola was a key player for one of the most memorable teams in history, Barcelona’s ‘Dream Team’ led by Johan Cruyff. During this period, the Catalan club dominated Spanish football and also secured their first European Cup in the 1991/92 season. Once he hung up his boots he’s also gone on to lift the continental trophy with both Barça and Man City, the current holders.
‘Carleto’ is well-acquainted with leading his teams to Champions League glory from the sidelines. An excellent man manager, he has achieved victory in the elite competition on four occasions while coaching prominent clubs like his current Real Madrid and AC Milan.
The Italian also had a successful playing career. He operated as a midfielder for one of Milan’s most triumphant periods in their history, and just like in his coaching career, he won the Champions League, then the European Cup, twice with the ‘rossoneri’ in the 1988/89 and 1989/90 seasons.
While Guardiola was the conductor of Cruyff’s Barça, Xavi played a similar role for Guardiola’s Barça. Under Pep’s guidance, the Spanish midfielder reached a level of play that few midfielders in history have matched. An authentic metronome, as precise as a Swiss watch, one of those who made the difficult seem easy, Xavi won the Champions League with the Catalan club in 2006, 2009, 2011, and 2015.
Currently, he occupies the managerial role at the club of his heart, and although he arrived during a challenging period for the club, he is gradually imparting his own touch to the team and has already achieved domestic successes with the most recent league title. Now, he will seek to establish the team’s presence in Europe.
The midfielder from San Sebastián has been a vital component of one of the most glorious eras in Spanish football. When he was quite young, he ventured to England, where he won the 2004/05 Champions League with Liverpool, in that historic comeback in the final against Milan in which he managed to score. Nine years later, while at Real Madrid, he secured his second continental crown, the club’s tenth.
His early career as a coach is already showing us signs of what he could be to come in the future. Alonso arrived at a struggling Bayer Leverkusen last season, bottom of the Bundesliga, and gave the team a complete makeover, ultimately securing a spot in the Champions League. This season, his team is currently leading the domestic competition after four matchdays, tied with Bayern Munich, despite having already played away at the Bavarian club’s stadium.
Other coaches who won the Champions League as players
As you’ll have gathered, we’re only including current managers actually in this year’s competition, so the likes of Steven Gerrard, who famously lifted the aforementioned 2005 trophy aloft with Liverpool and is now a coach, is not included as his journey took him to Saudi Arabia. There are, however, a couple more inclusions on our list: