By Jim Wirth
You are unlikely to see David Beckham enjoying a game of pool or Zinedine Zidane settling down for a quiet beer before a big match. However, as the UEFA Regions' Cup takes flight in Württemberg, Germany, seeing the top stars of the tournament relaxing in the warm evenings is not so unusual.
Maybe it is that which makes the Regions' Cup one of the hidden highlights of the UEFA tournament calendar. Europe's premier event for amateur footballers, this is a competition for players who love their football but have a life outside it as well.
The third edition of the tournament since it was first contested in 1999, the early stages of the Regions' Cup finals have been blessed with glorious weather and a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. The football may not be up to the standard you see in the UEFA Champions League, but there have been more than enough goals to make up for that.
The first day of action saw the eight teams who qualified from a pool of 40 to contest the finals, produce 23 goals between them, and quantity was no reflection of a lack of quality. Roberto Carlos would have been proud to produce a free-kick as sweet as János Dóra's effort for Hungary's Szabolcs Gabona Csoport Amateur against France's Ligue du Maine Amateur for a start.
Furthermore, the first round of matches in Württemberg has seen stars emerging. Zaour Ramazanov of Azerbaijan's Geyazan Amateur delighted fans at the Allgäustadion in Wangen with his trickery, while over at the Albstadion in Heidenheim, the tournament found its first local hero in host side Württemberg Amateur's playmaker Thomas Peschel. Dazzling in his team's 4-0 win against Ticino Amateur, the real Diego Maradona may be in Argentina, but as Peschel's new nickname attests, Württemberg now has a Maradona of its own.
There is fun to be had, but once the games start, it is a serious business. Unsurprising as the teams involved will rarely play on a bigger stage or have the opportunity to represent their countries elsewhere. "It means a lot because we are representing amateur football in France," Ligue du Maine coach René Logie told uefa.com. "That means 1,800,000 players. We are very proud to be here."
Logie's French side include a carpenter, office workers and games teachers among their number, while the youngest side in the tournament, the Netherlands District Noord Amateur - the youngest player is 19, the oldest 23 - are largely composed of students.
As District Noord coach Gerard Molenaars explained to uefa.com, the Regions' Cup is a rare chance for the best amateur sides from their respective countries to play in front of an appreciative crowd and perhaps dream of the kind of glory that they could never expect to receive in the course of their working lives.
"It is very important," he said. "We like it. Our qualifying tournament was in Holland and there was a lot of people watching us and reading about us in the papers and we liked that. The final tournament is here in Germany and now we hope to get to the final but I don't know if we can achieve that."
That dream will remain paramount in the minds of all of the coaches and players in Württemberg as the second round of matches looms on Tuesday. For now, there is time to relax - a quick game of pool, maybe a beer. After all, this is not the Champions League.
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