On paper, Selección Catalana look the team to beat in UEFA Regions' Cup Group B, but their rivals from Bulgaria, Russia and Belarus are not about to let the form book do the talking in Veneto.
All the sides have been quietly gathering information on their opponents in the lead-up to the amateur finals, but reputations will count for little come kick-off on Saturday. "There are some very big teams in our group representing Spain and Russia," said Isloch coach Vitali Zhukovski. "But in the past we have played against sides from big footballing nations like France, and won, so who knows?"
Yugoiztochen Region boss Krassimir Manolov, a fine professional player in his day, felt that the squad who play the long game – and deal best with 35C temperatures out here in Italy – might be the ones that claim a place in the final. "One thing is to be ready for the hot weather – playing dynamic football will not be easy," he said. "The second is to be psychologically stronger. It is not a sprint – it's a marathon."
With a local television crew following his players' every move, Selección Catalana boss Toni Almendros knows the Spanish representatives are turning heads in the team hotel, but he preferred to focus on the simple joy of competing at this tournament. "We feel very honoured to be here," he explained. "We are amateur players living like professionals so this is a big experience. I hope all the other teams enjoy that experience too."
That generous spirit is something of a hallmark of the UEFA Regions' Cup, which gives the continent's best regional amateurs – the footsoldiers of the European game – the chance to work like the stars and test themselves against the best of their peers. Crucial to that is the joy of meeting players from other cultures, united by the international language of football.
Olimp Moscow's Vladimir Aleshkin touched on that sense of occasion. "I want to thank all the organisers for welcoming us to this beautiful country and for creating this friendly atmosphere," he said. "I hope that the atmosphere of fair play will persist throughout the finals. I believe in respect too, and I hope that only the best team will win."
Unlike his opponents, Manolov has seen the tournament at close hand – he was assistant coach as Yugoiztochen, then known as South-East Region AMA, reached the final of the 2007 edition as hosts. Having dug out his official polo shirt from that event for the opening press conference, he summed up the ethos of the competition beautifully – opponents on the pitch, friends off it.
"I am pleased to be sitting around a table with head coaches from some great footballing nations," he noted. "I remember the feeling from the last tournament. This is a competition which is full of emotion and it will be tough for my young players who are experiencing international football for the first time. Everyone is starting from zero points, though, so we will see who is the best."
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