Eight captains of Europe's top amateur teams look ahead to this week's return of the UEFA Regions' Cup.
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The UEFA Regions' Cup is back from Friday, with eight amateur teams descending on Galicia, Spain, to compete for glory.
The 2020/21 edition of the Regions' Cup was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic but returned for 2022/23 with national champions from across the continent competing in qualifying across Europe in the second half of last year, and the eight survivors now eager to claim the title.
Below, we hear from the eight team captains as they prepare for duty and reveal what the opportunity means to them.
Paweł Słonecki, Dolnośląski:
"For us amateur footballers, the Regions’ Cup is a way to experience the atmosphere of professional football. For a moment we can feel like professionals and we can test ourselves on an international stage. Every athlete in their career wants to be the best, and winning the Regions’ Cup is the best for us.
"For footballers in the lower leagues, a tournament like this is like the Champions League. This is where the best footballers from across Europe, who for various reasons have not been privileged to play professionally, meet on the pitch. For young players, the Regions’ Cup can be a ticket to the world of professional football. And for people like me it is the culmination of sporting ambition and a reward for putting my heart and soul into the game every time I play."
Aarón Rama, Galicia (misses finals):
"Being in the finals of this tournament means a lot to me. It’s the culmination of a long career with my regional squad. For us players, this might be the most important tournament of our lives. We are not professional football players, but with this competition you could sense the professional vibes, the preparation, the stadiums, the crowd ... It has been great so far.
"Getting to the final tournament was pretty tough, but in the end we succeeded with a great group of players. We were together for almost a year and forged an unbreakable bond. I cannot describe the feeling when we realised that we had qualified. Since then, we know it might be possible to be Regions’ Cup champions, and this is the final objective now."
Sebastian Brey, Bavaria:
"The standard of matches at the Regions’ Cup is very high. You have to be at your limit to be successful. As a player you really want to experience international football, and to have been part of the German team in Bavaria in 2019 was a career highlight for me. To be in the German squad again this year in Spain is amazing!
"At the Regions’ Cup players from small clubs represent their countries which shows that the efforts of grassroot teams are recognised in the football world. No matter what league you play in you have to work hard to help your team. You have to respect each other and be sporting in victory and defeat."
Amir Bekan, Zenica-Doboj:
"It’s a great privilege and honour for me and my entire team to play in the UEFA Regions’ Cup and represent our country. I’m really looking forward to it and we can’t wait for it to start. I am sure we will do our best to represent our country as best we can. We really enjoyed every moment of these qualifiers and left our hearts out on the field. In the end, we are delighted to have qualified for the final tournament.
"The feeling is hard to describe in words; you have to experience it. When the referee blew his whistle in the final qualifying match and we realised we had made it to the final tournament, we were all really happy and proud. This means so much to us, and we are extremely happy to represent our country in this kind of competition."
Brendan O'Connell, Republic of Ireland Amateur:
"It means everything to play in this year’s Regions’ Cup. It’s the highest level that an amateur player can play at and I’ve been lucky enough to play in a few now. My first was 18 years ago in Kraków, Poland and it has been a brilliant competition. There’s a real togetherness within the group and the players are drawn from all sorts of backgrounds and bond through hard work.
"I often wondered would I get a chance at another tournament but here we are. It’s huge because, in my case and for Irish players generally, you invariably make a choice in your late teens between the professional game and pursuing education. The Regions’ Cup meant I could play at an elite level and pursue my career which has been so important. I’m really looking forward to it."
David Cardoso, Lisboa:
“Having already been in the Regions’ Cup, I have a bitter feeling that we didn’t win. Now we have the intention of winning, to get that title that we want so much. This has been two years in the making. From the beginning we wanted to get to this stage, it’s something special. Even having already experienced this, it seems like the first time. Anxiety is normal, whether in amateur or professional players.
"We always have to be a team; if one fails, the others are there to help. The friendships we create are what make me like football. This tournament gives a good boost to amateur football. It is very good for us to show ourselves on a European stage. This competition is proof that there is a lot of quality and youth that can go far."
Miloš Šarić, Belgrade:
“There is a huge responsibility on all of us, since we haven’t reached the finals of this tournament in 12 years. I am grateful to have the privilege of leading such a team. Not everyone has such an opportunity in life. We became one big family during the qualifiers; that unity and energy on and off the field led us to the results we wanted. We have all been waiting for this tournament with excitement and joy, since this is the first one in our careers.
"This tournament makes you feel important, visible and valuable, and gives you the joy of competing in the big international championships. I would compare it with the excitement that professionals have when playing the World Cup. I hope the tournament will be promoted even more in the future."
Petr Horňák, Zlín:
“It’s a great honour for me to represent my country at this level. The Regions’ Cup has given me the opportunity to meet a lot of great footballers and I have met some wonderful people. The whole qualifying stage was amazing. From the beginning, you could see how good we are as a team that pulls together and has a common goal. As amateurs, we are not seen that much in the media, so this tournament is a unique opportunity."