The UEFA Regions' Cup makes dreams come true for Europe's finest amateur players.
By Jim Wirth
The world's top tournament for amateur footballers, the UEFA Regions' Cup, is one of the hidden highlights of the UEFA calendar.
Contested every two years, the fourth edition of the event kicks off on Sunday in the Malopolska region of Poland, with the hosts looking to beat off competition from Slovakian, Czech, Ukrainian, Spanish, Irish, Bulgarian and Romanian rivals to take the trophy.
The idea of a tournament for amateurs was revived by UEFA in 1996 after a previous competition, the UEFA Amateur Cup, briefly flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. With 95 per cent of registered footballers being amateurs, it is UEFA's chance to check the strength of the game's grassroots.
However, if spectators at the finals in Poland are expecting to see the sort of amateur football that can be seen at weekends in municipal parks across Europe, they are in for a pleasant surprise. The players may not be professional, but their attitude is.
The qualifying rounds of the tournament saw a number of players poached from Regions' Cup teams by professional sides, and judging by the class on offer at the third edition in Germany in 2003, plenty more may be joining the latter ranks soon.
While the players at the finals largely represent their local region, one of the main incentives for them will be the chance to play for their countries - the vast majority of teams wear full national kit.
Republic of Ireland coach Gerry Smith told uefa.com: "It's brilliant for the players. They get the same treatment playing for Ireland as the senior international squad: they wear the official Ireland shirt, they have a pennant, they sing the national anthem."
In Malopolska, national ties will add an extra frisson of excitement as there are several games which see European neighbours go head to head. In Group A, hosts Malopolska will take on their neighbours from Central Slovakia in their first game and also face the Czech Republic's JMKFS Brno. Both matches promise a charged atmosphere and some exciting football.
Should Ukraine's Kahovka-Kzeso triumph in Group B they could then play their Polish or Slovakian rivals in the final, or indeed their Romanian neighbours Dacia Amateur. Dacia, in turn, could find themselves up against Bulgaria's South-West Region Sofia amateur in the final.
All these fixtures should keep supporters' pulses racing in Malopolska, but the players should need no motivation. Whether they are students, manual workers, unemployed or high-powered businessmen, this is their opportunity to act like professionals.
As José Antonio Goikoetxea, coach of Spanish representatives Vasca, told uefa.com: "The entire week is dedicated solely to football with a timetable and structure that is more or less the same as a professional team. The players are in the same place, wake up at a specified time for training in the morning, then play a game in the afternoon."
Previous final tournaments have proved that such circumstances bring the best out of players, and as amateurs from eight nations get the chance to congregate to play and socialise, the Regions' Cup is further proof that football can cross all boundaries. Be sure to keep track of the finals on uefa.com.