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Zagreb amateurs desperate to impress

"I have to dampen down the passion," coach Sreten Ćuk told UEFA.com as he tries to rein in the excitement surrounding Zagreb's UEFA Regions' Cup finals campaign.

Sreten Ćuk pictured at the 2009 finals
Sreten Ćuk pictured at the 2009 finals ©Sportsfile

Sreten Ćuk is confident the UEFA Regions' Cup will be some of his players' last hurrahs as amateurs, with scouts in Croatia eager to pick off Zagreb's top performers. "We have had players who ended up in professional teams, even playing professionally abroad," the 51-year-old said. "There are more and more scouts coming to our matches, asking about the players. There is plenty of potential in this side."

A regional coaching instructor for the Croatian Football Federation (HNS), Ćuk has considerable professional experience, having led NK Lokomotiva Zagreb from the third division to the top flight, and more recently worked as assistant coach to Velimir Zajec at GNK Dinamo Zagreb – taking sole command for a lone UEFA Champions League qualifier in 2010. Now overseeing Dinamo's B team, Ćuk's UEFA Regions' Cup know-how extends as far as coaching Zagreb as hosts of the 2009 final tournament.

The last side to qualify this time around, Zagreb outstripped opponents from Azerbaijan, Sweden and Latvia in intermediary Group 1, and Ćuk is optimistic that they can fight above their weight in the finals in Ireland this June/July. "Croatia is a relatively small country and our region cannot compare with some others at the final tournament in terms of population," he said. "However, for years now we have shown we are doing a great job in Croatia – we have a lot of talented players, and the good coaching and scouting network is crucial here."

Fashioning amateur players into a coherent unit for the UEFA Regions' Cup is no easy task – even for a trainer with Ćuk's credentials. "A lot of them have day jobs or university commitments, so it's hard to get them together to play," he said. "Our captain, 31-year-old Željko Štulec, works at a rolling stock company and had trouble getting time off work to help us in qualifying, but he is a really passionate and hard-working player who even put his job at risk to help the team. Nikica Brujić, 28, has a catering company and he loses out financially when he is on duty with us, but he wouldn't miss these games for anything."

Ćuk can only hope his squad's struggles pay off in other ways, with the opportunity to wear a national-team shirt and represent the region a significant incentive. "That's a big plus for this side," he said. "It's something special for the players. I really don't have any problems motivating them – in fact, I have to dampen down the passion. They are all proud to be part of this and it's their chance to show what they can do."