Fourteen years have passed since Veneto lifted the inaugural UEFA Regions' Cup, but for Michele De Toni, who scored the extra-time winner in the 3-2 final victory against Madrid, it seems like yesterday.
"It is the best memory of my sporting career," he told UEFA.com. "It was a tough game against the Spanish side, but with a few seconds until the final whistle in extra time we made one last attack. The ball came to me on my left foot, not my favourite one, but I hit it well enough to score. When I turned around everyone in the stadium was out of their seats jumping around and the players on the bench were running towards me to celebrate. It was amazing. I cried with happiness."
Such strong emotions are the core of the UEFA Regions' Cup, which highlights excellence in amateur football. As with the competition's maiden edition, Veneto is hosting the tournament again this summer, and another member of that triumphant 1999 side, Roberto Padrin, acknowledges just how important the event is to the players involved.
"It is football in its purest form – a place where relationships between people are much more important than the result on the pitch," Padrin, now mayor of the town of Longarone in north-east Italy, told UEFA.com. "Football is a school of life, especially for younger people, and can be a useful vehicle for personal development."
"The atmosphere was amazing," added Loris Bodo, coach of the successful Veneto team. "The competitive part started with the kick-off and ended with the final whistle – the rest was nice conversations, cultural exchanges, and also an exchange of personal items: it's all 'I give you my shirt, you give me your boots'. These kinds of relationships are at the heart of the tournament."
Between 22 and 29 June, the UEFA Regions' Cup will bring further passion to a territory where football has strong roots; the likes of Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero are both from Veneto, and Padrin believes his region will showcase its ability and ardour as hosts once again.
"The foundations of professional football lie in the grassroots," he said. "I hope the Regions' Cup will be the ideal stage for all those young players that work hard every day to chase their dream."
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