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2017: Zagreb seize second chance

"I have only the most beautiful words to say," said coach Tomislav Gričar after Zagreb made up for their 2015 final loss with victory in Turkey.

Zagreb celebrate their Regions' Cup final victory
Zagreb celebrate their Regions' Cup final victory ©Sportsfile

"I don't like using the word 'revenge'," said Zagreb coach Tomislav Gričar ahead of the 2017 UEFA Regions' Cup final. "For me, it is not a sporting word."

If the Croatian team's ensuing victory over the Republic of Ireland's Region 2 – opponents featuring players from the Eastern Region side who had beaten them in the 2015 decider – was not revenge, then it was sweet nonetheless. Toni Adžić got the only goal on 26 minutes at the Turkish Football Federation's Riva complex on the outskirts of Istanbul, with Gerry Davis's team going agonisingly close to an equaliser, Shane Daly-Butz hitting the bar deep in added time.

The first side to reach two successive finals of the world's top amateur tournament, Zagreb were thrilled, captain and fearsome front man Željko Štulec saying after returning home: "We cannot describe this experience. It was difficult being away from home for 12 days, but everyone is back now and we are delighted."

"I have only the kindest words to say about our stay in Turkey, the behaviour and play of our boys, and finally the celebrations at the finals and the return to Zagreb," added coach Gričar.

In total, 38 teams took part in the tenth edition of the competition, and Zagreb marked themselves out as ones to watch in qualifying, scoring 12 unanswered goals in their intermediary-round group in Hungary to join Region 2 (IRL), 2009 champions Castilla y León (ESP), Ingulec (UKR), Lisboa (POR), Olomouc (CZE), South Region (RUS) and hosts Istanbul (TUR) in the final tournament.

Even so, Zagreb had a tough start in Group A, twice pegged back by Lisboa to draw their opener, though their path to the final opened up as they overcame Istanbul – themselves 3-0 winners against Ingulec – in their second match. The Croatians then just needed to beat Ingulec in their third fixture to seal a final place, and they did not disappoint, Štulec among the scorers in a 4-1 triumph.

Group B proved rather tighter. While Region 2 prevailed 1-0 against South Region on day one, Castilla y León were quickly installed as favourites following a 4-1 thrashing of Olomouc, yet their fortunes waned with an exhausting goalless draw with Region 2, the Irish side showing immense resilience in resisting their advances, while South Region rallied to scalp Olomouc 2-1.

That left three teams in contention for the final on the closing day, and at the interval Castilla y León – 2-0 up against South Region, while Region 2 led 2-1 against Olomouc – seemed to have the golden ticket thanks to a better scoring record. However, the Irish side made it 4-1 by full time, and South Region picked off the Spaniards, winning 3-2 with ten men.

This time, however, the final was to be a step too far.