Football's best amateurs prepare for the UEFA Region's Cup

Empty Football Pitch

There will be no Dimitar Berbatov for Bulgaria when the country prepare for the upcoming Region's Cup, because the international summer tournament is applicable to amateur footballer's only. Callum Farrell explains.

On June 22nd, Italy and Brazil will take to the pitch at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador at they compete in their Group A Confederation Cup match.

Stars such as Mario Balotelli, Neymar, Andrea Pirlo and Fred will entertain the millions watching around the world and the meeting will raise the excitement for the World Cup in 2014.

Almost 5,326 miles away another international competition will be kicking off as the 2013 UEFA Regions Cup begins in Veneto in Italy, a competition that brings together the best amateur selections from all over the continent.

Rather than being competed between nations such as Spain, Italy, Brazil, Nigeria and Japan, the Regions Cup is being fought between the European regions of Veneto (Italy), Eastern Region (Northern Ireland), Qarachala (Azerbaijan), Keleti Regio (Hungary), Isloch (Belarus), Seleccion Catalana (Spain), Olimp (Russia) and Yugoiztochen Region (Bulgaria).

The finalists have qualified for the finals in Italy after navigating their way through two previous rounds in which 37 UEFA national associations put forward squads to bring the trophy home on June 29th 2013.

In its original incarnation the UEFA Region’s Cup was the UEFA Amateur Cup, created in 1965. Originally the tournament would only allow associations to compete if they had a professional top division, which meant that only 12 of the then 33 UEFA nations submitted teams (there were no professional sportsmen in the Eastern Bloc and the Scandinavian countries had no professional division).

There were four tournaments held between 1967 and 1978 with Austria, Spain, Yugoslavia taking home the UEFA Amateur Cup, apart from the edition in 1974 when finalists Germany and Yugoslavia agreed to share the title rather than compete.

By this point the competition was dwindling in popularity and only 10 countries had even attempted to qualify for the tournament, meaning it was shelved. That was until 1996 when the UEFA Committee for Amateur Football thought the time was right for an amateur competition now that the issue with Eastern Bloc and Scandinavian countries qualifying had been eradicated.

Now instead of teams being forward by national associations, each country holds a pre-qualifying tournament between its respective regions or leagues to select their representatives.

In the past the trophy has been shared by countries from all over the continent, with 2013 hosts Veneto winning the competition in 1999 before the Czech Republic’s Central Moravia in 2001, Italy’s Piemonte Valle d’Aosta in 2003, Spain’s Basque Country in 2005, Poland’s Dolnoslaski in 2007, Spain’s Castilla y Leon in 2009 and Portugal’s Braga in 2011.

The UEFA Region’s Cup is a breath of fresh air in an international and domestic season in which money and superstars dominate headlines and in which controversy off the pitch is consumed as much as anything on it.

The competition gives the chance to players who don’t enjoy the benefits of huge pay packets and who, like millions all over Europe every week, get out and play for the joy of playing. UEFA are right to create a tournament which reward the communities who drive forward the sport from the grass root level and in previous years have created scenes that would not have been out of place at this summer’s Confederations Cup.

The 2011 final was contested by Braga and Ireland’s Leinster and Munster. It resulted in an Irish squad, who had been together for nearly seven years, being defeated 2-1 by a Braga team who, as coach Dito explained, was “only put together seven months ago”.

Victory was secured in the 84th minute when Braga defender Jose Fortunato managed to chip the goalkeeper from the flank and earn the region their first UEFA Region’s Cup. Captain Daniel Simoes said that his team-mates would “never forget these seven days” and that “I will never forget all this experience, especially the moment when we lifted the trophy”.

The importance that is taken by the amateur players from the tournament and the value it represents to Sunday league players all over the continent was summed up perfectly by Jose Fortunato.

“I haven't really taken in just how big this is for the region and the country, but I'm sure that in the future we will sit down and look back at this experience as something unique and remarkable. I feel like I'm floating on air."

The competition is a brilliant way for proud countrymen to represent their nationality and gives a number of countries their first taste at an international final. The perfect combination.

image: © James Mitchell

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