The world's top tournament for amateur footballers, the UEFA Regions' Cup returns on Sunday, with Slovenia's MNZ Murska Sobota staging the first qualifying mini-tournament of the 2014/15 season.
In preliminary round Group B, Murska Sobota, EWC Scotland, Evia Region of Greece and San Marino's national amateur side will battle for a place in qualifying round Group 2, where they will compete with teams from Germany, Slovakia and England. The winners of that section will earn a place in the eight-team final tournament, to be held next summer by one of the successful qualifiers.
From the main city of the Prekmurje region, famous for its spas and health resorts, Murska Sobota are coached by 54-year-old local physical education teacher Franc Hauko. He is looking forward to a thrilling clash of footballing cultures, his side having qualified for the tournament by beating a team from the Ljubljana region 4-0 to win the national amateur title.
"We will start our first match on Sunday carefully," he told UEFA.com. "We will have to get a measure of how good our opponents are, and then we can decide whether to be braver and more attacking. Whatever happens, I'm confident that the tournament will be a great experience for all of us. And if we end up winning it, I will not have any complaints."
Evia – from Greece's second biggest island – will be the hosts' opening opponents, and are feeling similarly trepidatious. "It's our first participation in the Regions' Cup and we are in uncharted territory," coach Thanassis Gournas told UEFA.com. "However, we aim to enjoy this experience to the fullest. We are thrilled to take part, extremely motivated and amibitious as well. Nothing but topping the group will do."
San Marino take on EWC Scotland on the first day, with coach Fabrizio Costantini and his charges very much looking forward to it. "It will be a great chance for us to measure ourselves against sides from other footballing cultures in a tournament which has brought lots of satisfaction in the past," he told UEFA.com. "In total, 13 of the 15 teams in the San Marino League are represented in our squad. There is great enthusiasm and we are eager to do well."
"Our expectations are to top the group and qualify," added EWC Scotland boss Bruce McNaught. "We have a very young squad, but the great thing is that they have no fear. We are fit, well organised and have a great cameraderie in the squad and hopefully that will take us a long way in this competition."
Now into its ninth edition, the UEFA Regions' Cup is a competition for players who have never featured at any professional level. Contested by the winners of national amateur competitions – with smaller nations fielding national teams – it is a showcase for the wealth of talent that exists under the radar in European football.
Italy's Veneto claimed the 2013 title as hosts after a thrilling final tournament. "The Regions' Cup is something very close to my heart," UEFA Youth and Amateur Committee chairman Jim Boyce told UEFA.com. "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."
Additional reporting: Rok Šinkovc, Vassiliki Papantonopoulou, Alex O'Henley, Elia Gorini
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