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Grassroots healthy in Poland

The first day of the UEFA Regions' Cup saw the continent's best amateur players in action.

By Jim Wirth in Krakow

Framed on one side by woodland, and on the other by the giant buildings of the Okocim brewery, the OKS Okocimski stadium in Brzesko, with its lone, well-kept stand, is a reiteration of the values of the UEFA Regions' Cup - and of amateur football itself.

Joyful amateurism
The stadium that hosted Malopolska's opening-day Group A draw against Central Slovakia yesterday might not be the San Siro, but it is testimony to the ability of football to thrive in modest surroundings and to the willingness of amateurs - both players and administrators - to do justice to the game they love.

Top brass
A sleepy city 52km east of Krakow, Brzesko has come alive for the Regions' Cup. The Okocim brewery band catered for all tastes before kick-off, with a chirpy Polish dance tune giving way to a feast of popular classics. If you have not heard Abba's greatest hits played by a brass band, arguably you have never really lived.

Local colour
The entertainment continued with a procession of children in traditional local dress accompanying the players on to the pitch and, unusually, fireworks at 5pm heralding the start of the game on a sunny day that you would swear was designed specifically for football.

Slovak guests
With the Slovakian border barely 90 minutes' drive away, visiting supporters made up a small but noisy section of the crowd, drowning out the sound of the home fans with their joyous singing and tributes to their hero of the hour - 23-year-old goalkeeper Peter Pernis.

Virtuoso display
Television cameras and a sizeable contingent of reporters were on hand to watch Pernis's virtuoso goalkeeping display, as he denied Malopolska time and again after letting Pawel Brak's free-kick slip past him to give the Polish team a 1-0 lead. Once the Slovakian side had got back on level terms through Miroslav Laco, there was no beating him.

Missed chances
Malopolska coach Michal Królikowski could only salute the keeper while cursing his own charges' inability to finish. "We created lots of chances and the proof of that is that their goalkeeper was man of the match," he said. "Chances don't count in a match, goals do - and we should have scored at least one more."

Fair result
Meanwhile, Central Slovakia coach Jan Petrák paid tribute to the rest of his players who managed to cling on for a 1-1 draw despite being slowly baked in the afternoon sun. "The result was fair," he said. "I want to thank my fighters - they kept on going until the end."

Quiet reflection
With South-West Region-Sofia winning 3-1 against JMKFS Brno in the other Group A game, both teams have plenty to ponder as they prepare for their second outings on Tuesday. If they are in the mood for quiet reflection, they could have picked a better place to return to from Brzesko than the hotel which all eight sides are sharing.

Vasca singing
Buoyed by a 4-1 triumph in their opening Group B match against Kahovka-Kzeso, Spanish representatives Vasca were determined to enjoy their victory. To begin with, they were boisterous and excitable. Then, at around 10pm, the folk singing began.

Packed bar
Packed in a circle at the hotel bar, the team's coaching staff were keen to demonstrate that, while they might not have made it as professional footballers, a second career as troubadours is far from an impossibility. Sure, it may be a passport to penury, but as the Regions' Cup continues to prove, if you are doing the thing you love, who needs money?