For a long time, the World Cup was considered the pinnacle of football – success in the competition was the peak of any player’s career, far beyond anything the club game could offer an athlete. And, in terms of prestige, the international showpiece still sits atop the table. But, in the modern game, it is the Champions League which has usurped the World Cup as the stage where fans witness the highest quality of football. The European competition is at the very top of the sporting tree. It’s a tree with roots of cash, of course – curtesy of eye-popping TV deals, European super clubs are able to assemble squads the calibre of which international sides simply cannot match.
To win a Champions League then – or a European Cup as it was known until the rebrand in 1992 – is one the crowning achievements of an elite player’s career. There are many great players who have gone without a triumph, Ronaldo, Fabio Cannavaro and Zlatan Ibrahimović to name but a handful. In fact, there are only five teams that have won the competition five or more times. For an individual to have won five or more, consequently, is a uniquely bewildering achievement. It is therefore worth taking a look at the 11 players to have done exactly that…
Alessandro Costacurta – 5 titles (1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, 2007)
Affectionately known as Billy by his adoring public in Lombardy, Alessandro Costacurta is one of ten players to have won five Champions League titles, one of just three in the modern era. Throughout the late 80s, 90s and early 2000s, the Italian centre-half was a stalwart at the heart of AC Milan’s much-eulogised defence, a four-strong unit widely regarded as the greatest defences in the game’s history and one which boasts two names on this illustrious list (more on that later).
Billy’s first European success came at the climax of his breakout season in 1989, three years before the competition would become known as the Champions League. Although he wasn’t in the squad when he collected his fifth winner’s medal after AC Milan’s 2-1 victory over Liverpool in 2007 (fair enough really, he was 41 by this stage) his longevity at the vertex of European football was astounding.
Marquitos – 5 titles (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960)
Marcos Alonso Imaz, known prosaically as Marquitos, is one of seven players on this list from the Real Madrid side of the 50s and 60s which swept all before them, both in Europe and in Spain. Between 1956 and 1960, Los Merengues lifted the old European Cup five times and established themselves as the dominant force in continental football.
Of Real Madrid’s five consecutive tournament triumphs, the Spanish right-back started in all but the 1958 final. He was a tenaciously influential figure for the era-defining side. In the 1956 European Cup Final against Reims – a game consistently lauded as one of the greatest in the tournament’s history – Marquitos scored a crucial equaliser to level the scores at 3-3 before Hector Rial inflicted the knockout blow. It was the victory which kickstarted an era of imperial dominance for the royal club, Marquitos’s name has a special place in the club’s heritage.
Rafael Lesmes – 5 titles (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960)
Another Spaniard. Another Real Madrid player. Another name etched forever into European footballing history. A defender by trade, Rafael Lesmes played for Los Blancos between 1952 and 1960 and featured in three of their five European Cup-winning 11s. He missed out in the 1959 and 1960 showpieces – manager in 1959, Luis Carniglia opted to play Real Madrid’s captain José María Zárraga, who played predominantly as a midfielder, in Lesmes’ favoured left-back role while youngster Pachín, 12 years Lesmes’ junior, got the nod ahead of him in the 1960 Final.
But with 200+ games in the bank for one of the finest sides Europe has ever seen, Lesmes place in Champions League history was established long before his omission in the latter of Real Madrid’s five successive triumphs.
Hector Rial – 5 titles (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960)
The third of seven Real Madrid players from their five-in-a-row side, Héctor Rial was an Argentinian-born Spaniard who played as a centre-forward for the club between 1954 and 1961. In that time, his record was outstanding – he netted 60 times in 113 appearances. Three of those goals came in European Cup finals: two against Reims in 1956 (including the decider, as mentioned) and one against AC Milan as Real Madrid overturned their Italian rivals 3-2 in 1958.
Like Marquitos, Rial started four of Real Madrid’s five Champions League successes. He missed out in the most dramatic of them all, the 7-3 annihilation of Eintracht Frankfurt played in front of 127,000 fans at Hampden Park in 1960. While this will have been the source of some regret for Rial, the history books will remember him as an integral part of
Juan Alonso – 5 titles (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960)
Juan Alonso played for – you guessed it – Real Madrid from 1949 until 1960. Alongside seven of his teammates, the goalkeeper has won five European Cup winners medals, a record which marks him out as the most garlanded shot-stopper in the history of European competition.
The Spaniard played in just shy of 300 matches for Los merengues before being tragically forced into early retirement by a pernicious combination of a collarbone problem and breathing difficulties. Before his untimely withdrawal from football however, Alonso played in three of Real Madrid’s European Cup Finals in the 1950s before being usurped by the Argentine Rogelio Domínguez in 1959 and 1960.
The highlight of Alonso’s career was captaining his side in the 1958 final victory over Milan. He was beaten twice but Madrid still managed to squeeze past AC Milan to victory.
José María Zárraga – 5 titles (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960)
Succeeding Alonso as captain in Real Madrid’s European Cup-winning sides of 1959 and 1960 was José María Zárraga. The left-winger is the first player on the list to have appeared in all five of Real Madrid’s finals between 1956 and 1960.
A selfless and unshakeable presence in Real Madrid’s dynamic midfield, Zárraga was born in Basque Country but is synonymous with Madrid and their early European Cup dominance. He retired in 1962 having dedicated 13 years of his life to the royal club during which made upwards of 300 appearances.
Alfredo Di Stefano – 5 titles (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960)
The sixth out of seven the famous Europe-conquering Real Madrid side of the 50s is also the one whose name resonates most with football fans across the world – Alfredo Di Stéfano.
The legendary Argentinian-Spanish forward holds the remarkable achievement of having scored in every one of Real Madrid’s European Cup Final victories, 1956, 1957, 1958 1959 and 1960. His finest hour came in the famous 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960 when he scored three goals. Although he was ultimately overshadowed by Ferenc Puskás who netted four, he is still one of only three players to have bagged a hat-trick in a European Cup Final. This baffling consistency in finals was emblematic of his goalscoring record throughout his entire career; the ‘Blonde Arrow’ scored 308 times in 396 matches for Real Madrid.
Di Stefano became a household name after winning the Ballon d’Or twice, once in 1957 and once 1959. He is the poster boy for one of the greatest teams to have played the game and a bonafide Real Madrid and European Cup icon.
Paolo Maldini – 5 titles (1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, 2007)
Finally, we can turn our attention – albeit briefly – away from Madrid and towards Milan. Just as Di Stefano’s name is synonymous with Real Madrid, Paolo Maldini’s is with AC Milan. In defensive terms, Maldini is quite simply peerless.
A dextrous, efficient, emphatic, omnipresent player who played predominantly as a left-back or centre-half but could comfortably perform in any position across a back-line, the Italian won five Champions League crowns between 1989 and 2007 – that’s 18 years difference. This time between successes means that Maldini holds the record for the longest time between triumphs in the competition, a unique record which emphasises his endurance. Unlike fellow five-time champion and AC Milan compatriot Billy Costacurta, Maldini was in the starting 11 for both the 1989 and 2007 finals.
Of all the players to have won a quintet of European Cups, there’s a convincing argument to posit Maldini as the greatest owing to his generation-spanning influence. In 2007 when AC Milan won the Champions League Final 2-1 exacted revenge on Liverpool for their sensational 2005 penalty shootout defeat in Istanbul, Maldini became the oldest captain to win the Champions League – it’s a record which is unlikely to be toppled anytime soon, if ever.
Cristiano Ronaldo – 5 titles (2008, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018)
What more can be written about Cristiano Ronaldo? The former Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United, Real Madrid and now Juventus forward is the ultimate Champions League player and probably the best the competition has ever witnessed. The Portuguese is the only active player on this list and the only one to have won his five Champions League titles with more than one club. There truly is not enough space in this article to list every Champions League record the great man has smashed, so we’ll have to list only the most significant.
Firstly, Cristiano is the competition’s greatest ever marksman having netted 129 times in 172 appearances. He has also registered the most assists with 39. He has won Goal of the Season three times, in 2014-15, 2017-18 and 2018-19. He has scored the most goals in a single Champions League season, 17 in 2015/16. He has scored against more teams in the Champions League than anyone else, 33. The list is seemingly endless. There are hundreds more.
Just as Los Blancos had a period of continental dominance in the 50s, Ronaldo’s Real Madrid side did in the 2010s, winning three titles in a row and four in five years. Now, Ronaldo has moved to Turin and it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that the sole aim of his remaining years as a footballer is to become the footballer to have won the most Champions League titles. And you wouldn’t bet against him doing exactly that.
Francisco Gento – 6 titles (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966)
Francisco Gento, the only player to have won six (yes, six) European Cups. What separates him from the rest of the pack is that he was part of the Real Madrid five-in-a-row side of the 50s and early 60s but he won on one more occasion, in 1966 – a 2-1 victory of Partizan Belgrade during which he proudly sported the captain’s armband.
Gento was 33 by the time he won his sixth trophy. He also holds the record for having played in the most European Cup Finals with eight, he was on the losing side against Eusebio’s Benfica in 1962 and again in 1964 when Inter Milan triumphed 3-1 over Madrid in Vienna. He captained Los Blancos on both occasions.
In an era of hyper-competition when there are 4 or 5 super clubs competing for the Champions League title each and every year, it is unlikely that many more players will match Gento’s miraculous feat. His achievements were recognised by Real Madrid when, after the sad passing of Alfredo Di Stefano in 2014, he was made the historic club’s honorary president. He is one of just two surviving members of the imperial Madrid team and his legacy is one of unrivalled European glory.
Inevitably, on a list dominated by players from one club from a particular era, there will be some players omitted whose achievements are arguably as impressive as those on it. Clarence Seedorf, for example, is the only player in Champions League history to have won titles with three different clubs, Ajax in 1995, Real Madrid in 1998 and 2003, and AC Milan in 2007. He is one of 20 players to have won the competition four times.
Again, this is a list dominated by Real Madrid but this time the team who triumphed four times in five years between 2014 and 2018 – Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and so on.
Special mention should also go to three integral members of the Barcelona side from 2006-2015 that won four titles, takin Barcelona’s overall trophy haul to five – Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Gerrard Pique, another powerful Barcelona presence in one of the greatest teams of all time, also has four Champions League winners’ medals, with one coming with Manchester United in 2008.
Ex-Liverpool full-back Phil Neal is the only player from an English club to have been crowned a Champions League winner four times, in 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1984 as part of Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan’s supreme Liverpool side.