The UEFA Regions' Cup is the least well-known of UEFA's competitions but, as the biggest tournament in amateur football nears kick-off, it remains a thrilling event.
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What is the UEFA Regions' Cup?
Now into its ninth edition, the UEFA Regions' Cup is a competition for players who have never featured at any professional level. Contested by the winners of national amateur tournaments – with smaller countries fielding national teams – it is a showcase for the wealth of talent that exists under the radar in European football.
Why does it matter?
Because the vast majority of football players registered with UEFA's 54 member associations are amateurs. "These are the players from the grassroots – the guys who do it for nothing but the love of the game," explained Gerry Smith, manager of host side Eastern Region IRL.
"The Regions' Cup is something very close to my heart," added UEFA Youth and Amateur Football Committee chairman Jim Boyce. "I've always said it is giving players who would never have the opportunity of playing in a UEFA competition a chance of doing so. It's been going since 1998, it gets better every time, and I do believe it is a tournament that is here to stay."
Who, where and when?
The tournament is taking place at six venues in and around Dublin, with group stage matches scheduled for Friday 26 June, Sunday 28 June and Wednesday 1 July, with the final – between the winners of Group A and the winners of Group B – taking place at Tallaght Stadium on 4 July. Selections from both sides of the Irish border are taking on teams from Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany and Turkey.
What to expect
The word 'amateur' may have negative connotations for some, but while the UEFA Regions' Cup is a competition for players who love football, and play with a real passion, there is no shortage of quality. UEFA Regions' Cup alumni have gone on to play in the UEFA Champions League and for their senior national teams, but for many of those involved, professional football was never a target. Plenty of players here have good careers and prefer to keep football as a treasured hobby rather than a way of life.
Why do we love it?
Because it is a dream-come-true competition. The UEFA Regions' Cup is organised with the same thoroughness and professionalism as any other UEFA tournament, providing players a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work together in the best possible surroundings and experience other footballing cultures. They also get to play under the expert guidance of some of Europe's brightest up-and-coming match officials.
Plenty of sides, like Northern Ireland's Eastern Region NIR at the 2013 finals, wear full national kit. James Cully, their captain in Veneto, Italy, said: "To represent the country, just to wear the green jersey, was unbelievable. You lived the life of a professional for the week you were there. Going to the stadiums and arriving as a team, the professional set-up with the management, even just going to the airport with the country tracksuits on ..."
Sreten Ćuk, who is coaching Croatia's Zagreb at the 2015 finals, also knows how powerful the feeling of representing their country is for his players. "That's a big plus for this side," he said. "It's something special for the players. I really don't have any problems motivating them – in fact, I have to dampen down the passion. They are all proud to be part of this and it's their chance to show what they can do."
Winning it, of course, is a highlight for all players involved. Forward Francesco Gasperato, a champion with Veneto in 2013, summed the feeling up. "It's incredible, beautiful, marvellous. Tomorrow we return to our normal lives, back to work on Monday, but certainly with a bigger smile. I do what I do really happily – I have a child, my partner and my job and I play football when I've got time. It's a passion – it's the thing I like doing the most in the world and today we reached the pinnacle. The biggest joy of my life was when my child was born, and then there is this."