The UEFA Regions' Cup gives amateur footballers the chance to play international football.
By Jim Wirth
It is easily forgotten amid the excitement and glamour of UEFA's bigger tournaments, but in terms of amateur football, no competition can compare with the prestige of the UEFA Regions' Cup.
In the past few months, teams from all over Europe have been competing for the chance to play in the finals of the blue riband event for amateur players which is due to be played at a yet-to-be-determined location in June 2005. It is an opportunity for non-professional players to get five-star treatment.
The Regions' Cup gives players the chance to take time out from their day jobs and compete at international level against other amateur teams from different regions of the continent. The mini-tournaments are brilliantly organised and players get the chance to stretch themselves to their limits.
Teams from Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have already qualified for a place in the eight-team final tournament, but even for the players and coaches that have not reached the finals, the Regions' Cup has been an unforgettable experience.
Mikko Eskelinen, coach of Finnish side Järvenpään, who finished bottom of their qualifying group in Bulgaria, was delighted to have competed. "We came here with a young team, and wanted to have international experience. We played three good matches and players learned a lot for their development in the future."
'Friendship, fun and fair play'
Italy's Toscana Amateur were knocked out of the same mini-tournament, but still had a great time. "We have great weather, good pitches - congratulations to the organisers," said coach Alberto Cappellini. "We are very pleased that UEFA organises this tournament as it is all about friendship, fun, and fair play."
Those who witnessed the finals of the 2002/03 Regions' Cup in Württemberg, Germany, will be only too quick to tell you that just because the players are amateurs does not mean they lack talent. While all the players in the tournament have day jobs or studies, they are also fit and often remarkably gifted.
The last edition of the tournament - the third since the inaugural finals in 1999 - was won by Italian side Piemonte Valle d'Aosta, a brilliantly-organised side. Beaten finalists Ligue du Maine Amateur from France, had flair in abundance and, in captain Anthony Guyard, a creative player who would grace many professional leagues.
The next few months will see the completion of the qualifying phase of the tournament, with four more mini-tournaments to come in France, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Hungary. The winners of those four tournaments will complete the lineup for the finals.
The teams that make up that final eight can look forward to an exceptional experience in 2005, playing in front of good crowds, enjoying excellent organisation and getting the chance to play in a tournament as well organised as any of UEFA's professional competitions.