The UEFA Regions' Cup showcases the best of Europe's amateur players, but while the tournament celebrates that Olympian ideal, Bulgarian international Kostadin Stoyanov knows it can also make footballing dreams come true.
The 25-year-old central defender was playing with third division FC Zagorets Nova Zagora when selected to represent South-East Region at the 2007 UEFA Regions' Cup in his homeland. Until then he had "never heard" of the competition, yet it proved the turning point in his career, with he and South-East Region team-mate Boris Galchev now regulars at one of Bulgaria's top clubs, PFC CSKA Sofia.
"After the finals I received several offers, including one from top-flight side PFC Beroe Stara Zagora," Stoyanov told UEFA.com. "I went to train with them, but decided to join my home-town side OFK Sliven instead. In my first season we won promotion to the top flight and a year later, in summer 2009, I joined CSKA. Now, four years on, I can say
I did it the hard way, but made my breakthrough thanks to the Regions' Cup."
Stoyanov has subsequently competed in the UEFA Europa League group stage for two successive seasons, turning out against the likes of FC Porto, AS Roma and Beşiktaş JK. "I have played against great club teams in the UEFA Europa League," he said. "I have also won six Bulgaria caps so far, having made my debut against Cyprus in Ocober 2009. My life and career have changed so much in just three or four years."
Stoyanov's side were losing finalists in 2007, with Poland's Dolnośląski winning 2-1, though any disappointment felt at that stage has long since faded. "We took the lead in the second half, but then the Polish team equalised and won in extra time," he recalled. "The final was played in my home town, Sliven, and my family and friends were in the stands. We were all pleased with our performance despite the defeat."
Just competing in the event was an eye-opener. "I had never had the chance to play for the various national youth teams, so I will always remember that moment when I first heard the national anthem playing before kick-off," said Stoyanov. "It was a really special feeling. The finals themselves were brilliant. The organisation was perfect and we really felt we were playing at a big UEFA tournament."
Thrilling then, but also deadly serious. For the players competing in 2011, Stoyanov has this message: "
Do not underestimate the tournament. Before 2007 I never even dreamed of playing for Bulgaria, but now that is a reality thanks to the Regions' Cup. Before the finals in Sliven I just thought I had to keep working and training hard to make it, but now I am not sure that would have been enough. The Regions' Cup gave me a chance and I grabbed it. Do the best you can, and your efforts will be rewarded."
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