Host side Veneto scooped the 2013 UEFA Regions' Cup, but once again amateur football was the real winner in a competition which remains a special occasion for UEFA Youth and Amateur Football Committee chairman Jim Boyce.
"The tournament in Veneto was marvellous – the final was a full house," he told UEFA.com. "The Regions' Cup is something very close to my heart. I've always said it is giving players who would never have the opportunity of playing in a UEFA competition a chance of doing so. It's been going now since 1998, it's become better each time it has happened, and I do believe it is a tournament that is here to stay."
Perhaps the least celebrated of UEFA's tournaments, the UEFA Regions' Cup provides a stage for players who have never operated at any professional level, giving a chance for those who turn out for love, not money, to test themselves against their international peers. The June finals in Veneto once more underlined the breadth of talent that exists below the professional radar, and celebrated football's ability to bring nations together.
Eastern Region from Northern Ireland failed to make it as far as the final, where Italy's Veneto beat Selección Catalana from Spain on penalties after a 0-0 draw, yet they left their mark, receiving a fair play award at the draw for the opening stages of the 2014/15 competition. Captain James Cully had the honour of collecting the trophy on his team's behalf and said that playing in the competition had been an unforgettable experience for all.
"To represent the country, just to wear the green jersey, was unbelievable," he told UEFA.com. "You lived the life of a professional for the week you were there. We had to play in three tournaments to get there – in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and then San Marino and then Veneto. It was just unreal.
"It was an experience in itself, just playing against the different cultures and the different teams. Going to the stadiums and arriving as a team, the professional set-up with the management, even just going to the airport with the country tracksuits on. And getting messages from back home, everybody backed us – it was fantastic, especially for Northern Ireland to get to the finals and we did very well at them as well."
Qualifying for the next final tournament will begin in autumn 2014, with countries being invited to put forward the winning sides in their domestic amateur competitions – or a national team in the case of UEFA's smallest associations. Cully encouraged players across the continent to get involved, knowing how great the reward is. "Grab it with both hands," he said. "I'd be selling it to anybody. It was professionalism at its highest for amateur players."
©UEFA.com 1998-2015. All rights reserved.