The UEFA Regions' Cup is a competition that gives Europe's amateur players the opportunity to play on an international stage. The latest final tournament takes place in Turkey over the next week.
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A true celebration of the amateur spirit, this season's UEFA Regions' Cup finals will be staged from 1 to 9 July in Istanbul, Turkey.
Speaking after his side had won the 2011 UEFA Regions' Cup, Braga's José Fortunato explained how Europe's top amateur competition makes footballing dreams come true. "I'm sure in the future we will look back at this experience as something unique and remarkable," he said. "I feel like I'm floating on air."
This competition has been giving Europe's top amateur players that feeling for ten editions, and while past competitors have gone on to play in the UEFA Europa League, UEFA Champions League and even at senior international level, the competition is very much a celebration of the amateur spirit.
The Regions' Cup showcases the talents of players who have never featured at any professional level, with eligibility criteria ensuring that the teams that qualify through their own national amateur tournaments compete at a similar level. That means fierce competition, plus a real sense of community and respect.
The effort teams and coaches put into the finals is huge. Gerry Smith, who led Eastern Region IRL to glory in the 2015 tournament, alluded to his coaching team's workload after their final success. "It wasn't until 3.15 this morning that my assistant Gerry Davis finished doing the DVDs for this game, and we were back at it for 8.30," he said. "All week long it's been football, football, and more football."
Of course, the teams would not have it any other way, and the set-up of the Regions' Cup finals ensures that they have every chance to shine. Host associations provide brilliant training facilities, an army of supportive volunteers, and venues and playing surfaces worthy of Champions League games. UEFA also uses the competition as a proving ground for up-and-coming match officials, with finals’ referee teams boasting top-level experience at home and aspiring to reach the very top of their profession.
The football is not professional, then, but the emotions are even more intense as a result. As Veneto forward Francesco Gasparato put it after his side won the 2013 edition: "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."
2017 final tournament
Teams from eight UEFA member associations will be flying the flag for their countries at the tenth UEFA Regions’ Cup final tournament.
Croatia’s Zagreb Region will be looking to go one better than in 2015 when they were beaten in the final by Irish hosts Eastern Region, while this year’s hosts, Istanbul, will be hoping familiar surroundings suit them well. “Being hosts is an advantage for us and not an additional pressure," said coach Kamil Doygun, whose players are drawn from local leagues in Turkey's main city.
"These players could comfortably play in our second division. They have the potential to go even further." Time will tell, but in the short term, they will enjoy some of the best facilities in Turkish football, with the tournament centring on the Hasan Doğan complex, named in honour of a former Turkish Football Federation (TFF) president and base for the senior national team.
Located in Riva, around 30km north of Istanbul, close to the shores of the Black Sea, the complex was formally opened in July 2014. It includes five training grounds and rehabilitation facilities as well as running tracks, swimming and therapy pools and the offices of the TFF. Two other venues will also stage games: the Yusuf Ziya Öniş Stadium, which is home to Sariyerspor, and the Maltepe Stadium.
Zagreb Region (Croatia)
Castilla y León (Spain)
Olomouc Region (Czech Republic)
Region 2 (Republic of Ireland)
South Region (Russia)
Group matches: 1, 3 and 6 July
Final: 9 July
This article originally appeared in UEFA Direct No168