Olympiacos Join Small Band of European Champions from Outside the ‘Big Five’ Leagues

The Premier League has its ‘big six’ clubs – Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham – who have, historically, been the most successful in the competition. And in Europe, there’s also the ‘big five’ divisions: the Premier League, Spanish La Liga, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1. Each has earned their place in the club by producing high quality players, attracting stars from around the world and serving up teams that have been successful on the continent.

It’s rare for a team outside the ‘big six’ to win the Premier League – Blackburn Rovers and Leicester City the only sides to do that in more than 30 years, while it’s been even rarer that a team outside of the ‘big five’ leagues has won one of the continent’s richest prizes, such as the Champions League or Europa League. But Greek outfit, Olympiacos, added their name to the admittedly small list in May 2024, winning the UEFA Conference League final against Fiorentina. In doing so, they became the first team from Greece to win a European trophy. So, who else outside of the ‘big six’ has enjoyed continental success against the odds?

FC Porto – Europa League (2010/11)

FC PortoOne of the most successful teams in Portuguese football took their pedigree onto the big stage in 2010/11, winning the Europa League – considered to be the continent’s secondary prize behind the Champions League. They breezed through their group, before running into the first of their ‘big five’ opponents – Sevilla – in the last 32.

But the Spaniards were disposed of courtesy of away goals in a 2-2 aggregate draw, before a pair of Russian outfits – CSKA Moscow and Spartak Moscow – were taken care of 3-1 and 10-3 respectively over the course of two legs. Another big five opponent stood in Porto’s way in the semi-finals: Villarreal. But it was the Portuguese side that would produce an outstanding display in the first leg on home soil, running out 5-1 winners courtesy of Radamel Falcao’s four-goal blitz.

That tie was therefore pretty much over as a contest prior to the second leg, although the Spaniards gave it a good go in a 3-2 win in front of their own fans. Incredibly, that set up an all-Portuguese final, with Porto taking on Braga for the trophy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

A tight and cagey affair would be settled by a single goal – Falcao’s strike on the stroke of half-time enough to see Porto declared Europa League champions in 2011. The Colombian striker would earn himself a big money move to Atletico Madrid, while Porto would secure a place in the history books as the last non-big five European champions….until Olympiacos struck in 2024, at least.

Shakhtar Donetsk – UEFA Cup (2008/09)

Shakhtar DonetskThe Europa League (or the UEFA Cup in its former guise) has certainly been a happier hunting ground for clubs outside the big five divisions – aided, of course, by the relative drop in class of those qualifying for the continent’s second-tier competition. Shakhtar Donetsk took advantage of that lore in 2008/09, although there was plenty of high-grade opposition in that year’s edition of the Europa League – PSG, Ajax, Tottenham and Manchester City just some of those taking up a place in the competition’s knockout phase.

Spurs were the Ukrainians’ opponents in the Round of 32, with a 2-0 win on home soil – followed by a 1-1 draw at Tottenham’s then White Hart Lane home – enough for Shakhtar to record a famous upset victory. But they weren’t done yet. They managed to overcome a 0-1 deficit from the first leg against CSKA Moscow to prevail 2-1 in the last 16, before delivering a comprehensive 4-1 thrashing of Marseille in the quarter-finals.

Thet set-up an all-Ukrainian encounter with Dynamo Kiev in the semi-finals. Honorus were even from the first leg in a 1-1 draw, although Shakhtar did claim the advantage of an away goal in Kiev. Ultimately, they wouldn’t need it – a 2-1 win in Donetsk enough to complete a 3-2 aggregate victory.

In their way in the final stood a big five opponent: Werder Bremen. After Luiz Adriano opened the scoring for Shakhtar, the Germans equalised shortly after to leave the contest neatly poised at 1-1 at half-time. The game ticked over into extra time, during which a key figure throughout Shakhtar’s run – Jadson – would pop up with the goal that would secure his side, and Ukraine as a whole, their first major trophy: the last-ever edition of the UEFA Cup before its Europa League rebrand.

FC Porto – Champions League (2003/04)

Estádio do Dragão
Estádio do Dragão (Edgar Jiménez / Wikipedia.org)

There were two Russian winners of the UEFA Cup in the noughties: CSKA Moscow in 2004/05 and Zenit St Petersburg in 2007/08. But we wanted to take you back to the last time that a non-big five league team won the Champions League. That honour is bestowed, once again, upon FC Porto, who were guided to their 2003/04 glory by a manager that English football fans would later become accustomed with – Jose Mourinho.

Indeed, his ‘Special One’ nickname was derived from his stint with his native club, where he won the UEFA Cup in 2002/03 alongside the Portuguese Primeira Liga title. But it was the 2003/04 season in which Mourinho rose to prominence. Porto again won their domestic title, but it was their run in the Champions League that was most extraordinary. They progressed from a group that also included Real Madrid, Marseille and Partizan Belgrade in second place, before despatching Manchester United in the last 16 thanks to a late Costinha goal in the second leg at Old Trafford.

Lyon were next up, but they couldn’t lay a glove on Mourinho’s confident side – Porto won the first leg 2-0, before notching two away goals in a 2-2 draw in France. Anyone underestimating them was now beginning to eat their words, especially after a 1-0 victory over fellow surprise package Deportivo. The scene was set for the final in Gelsenkirchen against Monaco. Carlos Alberto opened the scoring for Porto, before two of Mourinho’s favourites – Deco and Dmitri Alenichev – sealed the victory. Porto were the champions of Europe: the last non-big five team to achieve the feat. And the cult of Mourinho was only just getting started….