The countdown to the 2012 UEFA Europa League final officially began today with the trophy handover ceremony at the National Arena Bucharest, venue for the final on Wednesday 9 May.
To start the clock ticking down to the first European final to be held in Romania, the UEFA Europa League trophy was handed over to the mayor of Bucharest, Sorin Oprescu, by UEFA President Michel Platini.
The UEFA President had received it from a four-man delegation from last season's UEFA Europa League winners FC Porto, which featured the Portuguese club's Romanian international defender Cristian Săpunaru. The presentation ceremony heralded the biggest event yet to take place at the new National Arena, which hosted its first match last September.
Mr Platini said that he was "impressed by this magnificent stadium – I have to congratulate the mayor of Bucharest and all those who contributed to building this stadium." With European football's governing body having awarded the hosting of this final to Bucharest back in January 2009, the UEFA President went on to praise "the passion and enthusiasm of the Bucharest people and the Romanians generally. I am sure it was an excellent idea to have this final in Bucharest and we are happy to be here."
Mr Oprescu, meanwhile, thanked everyone who had made it possible for the 9 May final to be played in the Romanian capital, including "Michel Platini, as President of the football body which awarded Bucharest this final, Mircea Sandu, who bid for it, the constructors and all my colleagues within the City Hall".
The challenge now, Bucharest's mayor continued, is to "continue our efforts for a perfect final until all our guests arrive in Bucharest". A warm welcome, he added, is guaranteed to whichever of the semi-finalists – Club Atlético de Madrid, Valencia CF, Sporting Clube de Portugal and Athletic Club – make it through: "Romanians know how to welcome their guests – teams, officials, fans, tourists – and this final between two Latin teams in a Latin country will represent an immense joy for all Bucharest people."
Romanian Football Federation (FRF) president Mircea Sandu spoke of the importance of having a major final on Romanian soil: "Having this stadium and this final is an encouraging sign for Romanian football. It will bring more than 30,000 visitors in less than a month, and all those who offer services in the city should understand what a final like this means."
The expectation from 2012 final ambassador and former Romanian international Miodrag Belodedici, is of a "fantastic final", whoever gets there. "All the semi-finalists have played extraordinarily well so far, they proved their quality, so I don't see any favourites," he said.
As well as a historic occasion for football in Romania, the trophy handover ceremony also signalled the beginning of the UEFA Europa League trophy's tour of Bucharest. The famous silverware will visit ten locations during the build-up to the final – many of which will be open to the general public, including Piața George Enescu, Parcul Unirii, Băneasa Shopping City, Pasajul Universității and the Old Town.
Other scheduled stops are the SEAT headquarters, the City Hall Registration Centre and the National Arena VIP Tribune, as well as the Student Campus of the Politehnic Institute. The tour's final destination before the National Arena showpiece will be the Romanian Olympic and Sports Committee headquarters on 7 May.
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