Ranked! The 10 most controversial moments in Champions League history

Robin van Persie
(Image credit: Getty)

The Champions League is the greatest competition on Earth. Its prestige, from the star ball to the anthem, is dripping in glamour and glory. But boy, oh boy, has it cheesed off people in the past.

From those claiming there's a draw-rigging conspiracy to those who believe referees favour certain clubs, there's no shortage of outrage when it comes to this competition. Certain decisions, moments and events, however, have sparked such ire and red-hot anger from fans that we're poking a beehive just by mentioning them here. 

If you're still traumatised by how your side was robbed in Europe, look away now…

10. Ronaldo's double Bayern drama

Cristiano Ronaldo

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Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player ever to score 100 goals in the Champions League in 2017, when he netted a hat-trick in a quarter-final win over Bayern Munich. As far as Bavarians are concerned, mind, he should've just scored once. 

Real and Bayern went hammer and tongs at each other over the course of those three hours, in an end-to-end Bernabeu tug of war. With the scores poised at 3-3 on aggregate, however, it was the two Ronnies that made the difference: first, Ronaldo slotted the ball past Neuer a yard offside from a cross, before Marcelo squared it to CR7 for his hat-trick when he was ahead of him.

Bayern were peeved – but also absolutely knackered. Neuer had taken a battering to his goal over those two legs and there was a sense that those goals would've come either way. Still, that's not the point…

9. The ine-Legia-ble star


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Here's one for a trivia quiz. How did Celtic lose a 2014 qualifying tie 6-1 in the Champions League on aggregate, yet still advance? The answer lies with opponents, Legia Warsaw.

We've heard of teams getting complacent when they're ahead but never quite like this. Legia were controlling the second leg when they brought on Bartosz Bereszynski, while he was supposed to be suspended. Celtic were awarded a 3-0 win and squeaked through on away goals as a result. 

"It is very strange, I have to say that," said then-Celtic manager Ronny Deila, whose fellow Norwegian countryman Henning Berg made the boob in the Legia dugout.

8. Ferguson's fury at Nani card


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"I think the referee has actually made the right call," said Roy Keane in the aftermath of Nani's red card against Real Madrid in 2013. "Everyone's upset about it and it's slightly unlucky, but it's dangerous play. Whether he meant it or not is irrelevant."

Keano has never been afraid to say the unpopular, after all. The red card, awarded for a high boot towards Alvaro Arbeloa – by Cuneyt Cakir, who sent off John Terry against Barcelona the season prior – was so contentious that Sir Alex Ferguson didn't even attend the post-match press conference. 

"Not one person said it was a red card except Roy. Does Roy want to be noticed?" United legend Paddy Crerand retorted to Keane's comments. "Let me tell you something: I played with Manchester United, I played in a European Cup final, Roy didn't. The referee was wrong."

7. The abandoned Milan derby

Milan derby

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If it's ever-so-slightly silly that AC Milan or Inter Milan could possibly be eliminated from a tie against one another on away goals, a 2005 tie between the rivals was stopped with Milan 3-0 up on aggregate for even more ridiculous reasons.

With Inter trailing and Esteban Cambiasso seeing his goal chalked off, Nerazzurri followers got tired of the football and started throwing missiles onto the pitch. Milan keeper Dida was hit by a firework, deemed to be the final straw by referee Markus Merk. The game was abandoned and that iconic photo of Materazzi and Rui Costa watching on was taken.

Inter were ordered to play their next six European games behind closed doors, with two of those games suspended for three years. They were fined 300,000 Swiss francs (about £132,000), too. 

6. Frisk leaves football

Barcelona vs Chelsea

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UEFA’s Volker Roth called Jose Mourinho "an enemy of football" in the aftermath of the Barcelona-Chelsea tie that forced Anders Frisk into early retirement – and it all came about from a second yellow card. 

Didier Drogba's lunge at Victor Valdes was studs-up – and made a meal of by the Catalan keeper – but Frisk's decision to send him off was met by the rage of an entire club. Mourinho accused the Swede of conspiring with Barca coach Frank Rijkaard, while Frisk was bombarded with death threats by angry Blues. 

The referee later described himself as "a Chelsea fan since boyhood" claiming he was "scared" to officiate again and "didn’t even know if he dared let his kids go to the post office". It remains a moment that Mourinho would no doubt rather forget. 

5. Buffon vs Oliver


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With Juventus 3-0 up against Real Madrid in 2018 – them again – Cristiano Ronaldo was given a dramatic last minute penalty to give Los Blancos that all important consolation and drag Real through on aggregate. In all his long, long career, Gianluigi Buffon had never been so incensed.

The Italian No.1 went storming up to referee Michael Oliver, screaming at him that he had a rubbish bin for a heart. The Premier League official took exception to this, proceeding to send Buffon off for his foul language. 

Juventus felt robbed, as if Oliver had been looking for the very slightest excuse to rail against them, while Buffon later argued that Oliver was far too young to be a referee in that kind of atmosphere. Ahh, the youth today, eh Gigi?

4. Van Persie's Camp Nou red


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The first leg of Arsenal's 2011 Champions League tie against Barcelona is remembered for a virtuoso Jack Wilshere masterclass against one of the greatest midfields ever. The reverse game has gone down for a moment of genuine madness. 

With the tie still in Arsenal's favour on 55 minutes, Robin van Persie was given perhaps the harshest second yellow card of all time. The Dutchman was clean through on goal, took a shot and then turned to see that the offside flag had been raised. 

Seeing RVP had kicked the ball away after the whistle was blown, referee Massimo Busacca brandished a booking. Van Persie argued he couldn't hear the whistle in the raucous atmosphere of the Camp Nou – but it was all in vain. The 10 men of Arsenal crashed out of the Champions League and Barca went onto Wembley. 

3. Chelsea's penalty denials


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Some claim that UEFA simply didn't want another Chelsea vs Manchester United final in the 2009 Champions League, just a year after that rainy Muscovite showpiece. Others claim it was sheer incompetence. 

Whatever happened, surely the Blues should have had one decision go their way: maybe the Dani Alves wrestle Florent Malouda that was in the area? The Eric Abidal trip and shirt pull on Dider Drogba with the Ivorian through on goal? Gerard Pique clearly handling in the penalty area? What about the Samuel Eto'o handball?

Refereeing decisions often equal themselves out in a match: if you get one 50/50 call, you shouldn't be expected to get another. The fact that Chelsea got precisely none of the luck in that match is still a sticking point for fans. Pep's treble that season is tainted as far as Stamford Bridge is concerned…

2. The ghost goal of Garcia

Luis Garcia

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Why is it always Chelsea? No one will ever know if Luis Garcia's shot in the 2005 Champions League semi-final for Liverpool actually crossed the line but the very ambiguity made this moment the most talked-about goal of the Reds' Champions League win that season.

"After that semi-final he came up to me and wished me luck for the final," Garcia told FFT about a raging Mourinho, who this time held his ire in. "He’ll always deny my goal, but if I was him I’d do the same."

Thank goodness this could never happen again, thanks to goal-line technology… well, except for that time that it happened in the Premier League and helped Aston Villa avoid relegation. 

1. Marseille's expulsion


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The most controversial moment in the history of the Champions League is one in which the perpetrators didn't get away with it. In fact, they didn't do anything wrong in this competition.

Marseille president Bernard Tapie saw the 1993 Champions League final on the horizon and knew that some of his players might well be tired from playing Valenciennes just days before. Rather than suggesting his manager Jean-Pierre Bernes rest key men, the pair contacted three Valenciennes players, bribing them to go easy on l'OM. Two accepted the bribe, one refused and exposed them.

The very first winners of the tournament, following its rebrand from the European Cup, were unable to defend their title after a massive ban. Tapie was sentenced to prison, turning to threatre and TV among other endeavours later in life. It's still a stain on European football. 

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Mark White
Staff Writer

Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. An encyclopedia of football shirts and boots knowledge – both past and present – Mark has also been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals for FFT and has written pieces for the mag ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career. He once saw Tyrone Mings at a petrol station in Bournemouth but felt far too short to ask for a photo.