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Croatia carrying hopes of ambitious amateurs

The UEFA Regions' Cup offers a variety of incentives to the different players at the tournament but for all of them, the same dream every amateur harbours – to play in a major international finals – has come true.

The mutual respect teams have for each other is evident before kick-off when they pose together for a picture
The mutual respect teams have for each other is evident before kick-off when they pose together for a picture ©Sportsfile

It goes without saying that amateur footballers all around the world dream of playing in a major finals, but for eight lucky teams that is what the UEFA Regions' Cup provides.

Eclectic mix
Launched in its current guise in 1999, the six editions of the competition have contained a curious mix of non-professional players: from those using it as a stage to catch the eye of clubs from the higher echelons, to old-timers crowning their time in the game with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Full-time solicitors in their 30s rub shoulders with teenage strikers looking to make a name for themselves, creating – what could at the very least be described as – an eclectic atmosphere in and around the team hotels and at match venues.

Rinat Khaliulla was holding court among his Privolzhie AMA team-mates in the players' recreation area the day after his side's 2-0 win over hosts Centre Zagreb AMA. "This tournament is very, very good for us," the 23-year-old forward told uefa.com. Khaliulla sells cars – "Ford, Mercedes, Toyota, Lexus," – when he is not pursuing his football career but is more interested in showing off pictures on facebook.com of his "big mate", professional Sergei Ovchinnikov. "I love to play football, that's why I'm here," he added, the aspiration to make it in the game unmistakable.

Corinthian spirit
Although there is an overt, competitive edge at the finals with many of the players keen to impress watching scouts, the atmosphere is overwhelmingly friendly: players want to progress and take their careers forward, but there still remains something of the Corinthian spirit between rivals. At not many other tournaments will UEFA's edict of Fair Play be better adhered to with a camaraderie evident between sets of players not often apparent at the higher levels. Kempen AMA captain Dieter Conderaerts, 25, said: "The atmosphere and the stadiums are great and we've had good contact with the other teams in our group."

Differing incentives
For Region I AMA goalkeeper Adrian Walsh, meeting players from overseas is one of the best aspects of the tournament. "The organisation is brilliant as is being around the hotel and meeting lads from different countries," said the 28-year-old, who regards the competition as the peak of his career. "It's fantastic, as amateur players it's what we really look forward to as it's the highest level we can play at." Perhaps it is this, the fact that the UEFA Regions' Cup offers different incentives to different players, that sets it apart, rather than its amateur status.

The location of the finals in the beautiful hilly countryside surrounding Zagreb is another boon for Conderaerts. "We are on a privileged journey with the hotel and swimming pool," he added. "For us it is a little bit of a holiday as when we go back, we will return to training with our clubs. The sun is always shining here while in Belgium it always rains – I like it." Kempen's loss to Castilla y León AMA means they no longer can make Monday's final, but Conderaerts will not forget his time in Croatia. "This is the first time a Belgian side has made it here which is an achievement and on Sunday we return home and back to our normal lives."