Few amateur footballers can say they came halfway across Europe to compete for a continental title, while playing in first division stadiums, being followed by film crews and still enjoying the local nightlife once the games were out of the way. Welcome to the UEFA Regions' Cup.
Dolnoslaski AMA's dramatic 2-1 extra-time win against Bulgarian hosts South-East Region AMA in front of a finals record 3,500 crowd in Sliven on Tuesday ensured the trophy made its way to Poland and was a fitting end to a unique tournament. Eight teams had battled through qualifiers over the last year to make it to the finals and their reward came in the beautiful, if sweltering, setting of central Bulgaria. Fresh from scoring the final winner, Dolnoslaski's Szymon Jaskulowski, a 22-year-old student, spoke for his 159 fellow players here when he told uefa.com: "Bulgaria is great, a nice country. I was very surprised, I didn't think everything would be so good here, the pitches were very good but the temperatures were too high for us!"
The Dolnolsaski players certainly enjoyed themselves even before the final, sharing a heady singing and table-dancing night with their Group B rivals, notably Ukraine's Ivan Odessa AMA, at the departing teams' farewell dinner in Stara Zagora on Sunday night. And it is a testament to the spirit of those players that even late in extra time in their fourth game in seven days, in temperatures topping 40C, they were still determined to attack and put on a show for the fans. One impressed observer was the mayor of Sliven, and their most famous footballing son, FIFA World Cup semi-finalist Yordan Letchkov, who was instrumental in ensuring Bulgaria's first UEFA finals came to the mountain setting of his hometown. "I am very glad that amateur football is being popularised," he said. "And
I am very glad that this will give amateur football a greater profile, as I do believe great games are played at this level."
Jim Boyce, the UEFA Youth and Amateur Football Committee first vice-chairman who presented the trophy, concurred. "It means the world to these players," the Irish Football Association president said. "They get to play on the best pitches, be treated like stars - they love that. Since its inception [in 1998/99] it's really grown in status, UEFA respect it a lot more. For me to be such a pivotal part is a real honour, it is the tournament that gives me the most satisfaction. This year's has been the best ever, the Bulgarians have been fantastic organisers and have put on a great show."
Of course, the competition is all about the players from Poland, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Switzerland and Ukraine, some of whom we may not have heard the last of. All of the South-West Region-Sofia AMA squad that reached the 2005 final, ironically in Poland, are now signed to clubs in the top two Bulgarian divisions. Portugal's João Pinto, not a dissimilar midfielder to his golden generation namesake, was one of many players to impress, and said: "I have been absolutely delighted to be in the Regions' Cup, I have been there from the beginning when we won the local competition in Portugal, this is the fourth tournament we have been in. We love the country, it is a beautiful country, we have enjoyed being here."
Stars on screen
Northern Ireland's Eastern Region AMA, pipped to the final by the hosts but Fair Play winners, had an even more unusual experience as they were followed by a film crew making a documentary for uefa.com's Training Ground section. And it will make for interesting viewing, as midfielder Darren Kitson revealed. "They are the best film crew I have ever worked with - and the only film crew! It has been magic having them around. Doing the profiles was great and made me feel like a film star. Some of the things I have admitted have been a bit personal - I never thought I would discuss my divorce with a UEFA journalist but I have."
Back to reality
Striker Andrew Forsythe, who headed the late winner on Matchday 1 against France's Basse-Normandie AMA, added: "When I scored the goal in the first game the first thing I did was look up to see if they got the goal on camera.
It's been like a dream for us and I will miss not having a camera in my face next week!" No other tournament puts players who play not for money but for fun on such a platform, mixing with their colleagues from seven other nations across the continent - and 20 Polish amateurs can now say they were European champions. It may be "back to reality now" as Kitson sighed, but his manager Harry McConkey concluded: "Now some of the lads have tasted what it is like to be a UEFA Champions League footballer and enjoyed it, I think it may give them added incentive to go on and make it to the top."
This is a version of an article that appears in this week's edition of the uefa.com Magazine. To read it in full, please click here.
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