Star players in their respective sides, Hugo Veiga and Ray Whelehan will face off as Braga meet Leinster & Munster in the UEFA Regions' Cup final on Tuesday, and for the latter simply being here feels like a victory.
Four months after competing in the 2009 finals in Croatia, Whelehan snapped the cruciate ligament in his left knee while playing for his Irish club, Wayside Celtic FC. Seven long months of recuperation ensued until the midfielder was fit enough to return for the remnants of the 2009/10 season. Having experienced the depths of frustration, the 27-year-old is savouring playing at the pinnacle of the amateur game once again.
"The injury has put a new perspective on things. To be at the finals is brilliant for me," Whelehan, an electrician by trade, told UEFA.com. "For me to be on the park against the Turkish team [0-0 on Matchday 1] and to score the goal against Belgrade to win 1-0 and then play against South Region Russia − I did OK but the team performance outweighs that of any individual − is phenomenal."
While Whelehan has caught the eye with his boundless energy, Hugo Veiga has been a calming influence at the base of the Braga midfield as the hosts strode into the final on the back of three Group A wins. "Our run until now has been brilliant and we want it to stay like that," said the 26-year-old sports psychology worker, a scorer in his team's 3-1 opening-day triumph against Zlín Region.
"We are very satisfied with the way we have been playing but the hardest part is yet to come. We need to take the final step and that's precisely what we are going to do. We don't want fall at the last hurdle."
Whelehan − a scorer of six goals in various editions of the UEFA Regions' Cup − would no doubt echo those sentiments as he prepares for "the highlight of my career" at the Cidade de Barcelos. "I'm excited but relaxed at the same time," he added.
"We've an inner belief and confidence throughout the team and we're just ready to go: we want it so much. We want to be on the park and doing the business. Everybody feels the same, from the management to the players."
Ditto Hugo Veiga, who must try and prise open a side which has conceded just once in six matches in the 2010/11 edition of Europe's flagship amateur tournament. "The Irish have played together for a long time and are very experienced, but we will remain faithful to our game," he said.
"The final will be decided by very small details but we will prevail. I'm sure I'm going to wake up with a smile on Wednesday." Whelehan may have something to say about that.
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