Northern Ireland is the venue as the 2007 UEFA Regions' Cup qualifying campaign begins with visiting teams from Scotland, Finland and Latvia vying for honours.
The fifth edition of world's premier tournament for amateur footballers begins on Saturday 19 August at The Showgrounds in Ballymena with Northern Ireland Eastern Region taking on Finnish contenders District of Uusimaa, represented by FC City Stars -82, in the opening game of the Central-West preliminary group.
Coached by Harry McConkey, the Eastern Region - which comprises clubs from Mid-Ulster and Antrim - comfortably overcame their Western counterparts in a two-legged play-off in March and are now looking forward to international competition on home soil.
"I'm optimistic because there's a great squad spirit and we'll get some support, especially from friends and family," said McConkey, whose side have been working hard to balance their footballing and working commitments. "They're all under pressure with their jobs, so we're very grateful to understanding employers."
Their first-day opponents, City Stars, represent the Uusimaa district and play in the Finnish fourth division but are eager to test their skills against foreign opposition. "They have done lots of hard work this summer and it is nice to compare how well we play against foreign teams," said team leader Keijo Lähdesmäki.
City Stars boast international class in the form of coach Pertti Jantunen who earned 26 Finnish caps in a career which saw him play professional football in Spain, England and Sweden. "He knows all the tricks and I think we have a good chance of suprising some teams in the Regions' Cup," said Lähdesmäki.
The other two sides who will contest the round-robin mini-tournament are Vidzeme from Latvia and Central Scotland, who also meet in Ballymena on Saturday. Vidzeme have been taking their preparations seriously, spending four days together training in Valmiera - the city that many of the players in the team call home.
Coach Romans Sidorovs was modest about the ambitions of his side, which features construction workers, farmers and a sports academy student. "Vidzeme do not have much chance of winning the group but we must test our opponents nerve," he said. "The Scottish amateurs would probably be at home in the Latvian top division!"
The Scots will be a force to be reckoned with under coach Hugh Carswell, who boasts 30 years of experience in amateur football. With a handy central midfield trio of Mark Brown, Mark Kelly and Sean Simpson, the Scots - who include oil rig engineers and glaziers among their number - have a point to prove.
In the last edition of the Regions' Cup, Scotland's representatives, Highlands and Islands, lost all three of their Intermediary Round ties in France. "This is the strongest squad we have had at this level for a while and after Scotland's disappointing performance in France last time out we can hopefully make a better impression in this year's competition," said Carswell.
Central Scotland face City Stars in their second match on 21 August at Lakeview Park in Loughgall, while on the same day, the hosts take on Vidzeme in Newry. The final day of action on 23 August will see Baltic rivals City Stars and Vidzeme meet in Ballymoney while the two British contenders face a final showdown in Lurgan.
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