The sense of occasion was not lost on Veneto coach Fabrizio Toniutto as he prepared to lead his side into the UEFA Regions' Cup finals, with his players eager to do their country proud in Group A.
"It is an honour to represent Italy in this event," he said ahead of encounters with Eastern Region of Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan's Qarachala and Hungarian opponents Keleti Régió at the world's top competition for amateur footballers. "We are very proud to be here in the finals and it was a really extraordinary thing to qualify."
Toniutto's team have changed substantially since their qualifying success. Injuries conspired with family and work commitments have robbed him of many leading players, but after a series of rigorous – if somewhat unconventional – pre-tournament training sessions, he hopes that Veneto are ready to give their best.
"Amateur footballers' main priorities are work or studying," he explained. "We have had to adapt our training needs to their lives. Most of our sessions took place in the evening and we haven't had much time, because their local leagues only ended in May – and some as late as 5 June. To solve this, we had sessions for smaller groups and gave them some homework to do. They all worked hard."
That experience was one that the coaches of all the sides in the finals shared in one form or another, but now they are out in Veneto, they are starting to reap the rewards for those stolen hours of training and tactical meetings. Qarachala boss Namig Bashirov is delighted by what he has seen of the final tournament before a ball has even been kicked. "It is beautiful to be in Italy with so many fantastic, smiling people," he said, adding that his squad had been "adapting their style to the international flavour of the event".
Keleti Régió felt similarly moved. "It is a pleasure to be here in this nice place in Italy," said their coach Tamás Feczkó. "It is a great opportunity to come up against teams from different nations and it is very good for amateur footballers in our country that we are represented at this event. We have a very young team and we like to play short-passing football."
To the surprise of many, UEFA Regions' Cup veterans Eastern Region have a similar style. "We received a great compliment at our qualifying tournament in San Marino – the fans and the local press were surprised that we played such an attractive brand of football," smiled manager Harry McConkey. "I don't know why. Combine that with the great spirit we have of being such a small nation."
McConkey took another Eastern Region team to the 2007 finals in Bulgaria and has nothing but praise for the competition. "I would like to thank UEFA for their great wisdom in introducing this tournament," he said. "For amateur players, it is a wonderful tournament – the pinnacle of their careers. To get this experience of different cultures is a life experience as well as a footballing one."
The only shame is that it is an experience not everyone can share. "Veneto is a very beautiful part of the world," said McConkey. "My wife is much annoyed that I am here with my players instead of her."
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