Played under sunny skies and warm Croatian hospitality, Europe's premier international amateur tournament produced some excellent football and in Castilla y León AMA, worthy winners.
Tournament hosts Centre Zagreb AMA were joined by three other teams in Group A with Oltenia AMA representing Romania, Bratislava AMA from Slovakia and the first Russian side to make it to the finals, Privolzhie AMA. Just 20 minutes away was the base for Group B, including Spanish outfit Castilla, Savez Gradiška AMA – who had made the short trip from Bosnia-Herzegovina – and Region I AMA representing the Republic of Ireland.
The eight sides had battled through a tough intermediary qualifying round, but with only the two group winners to progress, the competition was fierce from the off in the picturesque countryside surrounding Zagreb.
Castilla took a 100 per cent record into the tournament and kept that statistic intact in their three group games. A long-range David Durantez strike and Antonio Ramírez helped them to a 2-0 win over Region I and then they produced a superb display to dismantle Kempen 4-1, conceding only their first goal in the 2008/09 campaign in the process.
With Region I defeating Savez Gradiška – who had already succumbed to Kempen on the first matchday – Castilla were assured of a first-place finish in Group B after two games. Group A was proving to be a far tighter affair, though.
Centre Zagreb needed two late penalties to get past Bratislava in their opener but any momentum the hosts had was brought a shuddering halt in their 2-0 loss to Privolzhie. Oltenia were favourites to progress going into the last set of group fixtures and a 1-1 draw against Sreten Ćuk's Centre Zagreb was enough to set up a final date with Castilla.
Played at the home of Prva Liga side NK Inter Zaprešic, the showpiece differed markedly from all the group games in two respects: it was played in wet conditions following days of hot weather and under floodlights because of the evening kick-off.
A cagey opening did not hint at the drama to come as Castilla took a 20th-minute lead through Antonio Ramírez. With their outstanding defensive record, Javier Yepes's side would have been confident about protecting their lead but within five minutes, Oltenia were level when Mirel Adrian Sirbu finished off a well-worked free-kick.
Castilla came on strong in the second half, though, and José Luis Robles's header with nine minutes remaining gave them a deserved victory to become the second Spanish representatives to lift the trophy after Basque Country AMA's success in 2005.
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