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Wednesday, 06 June 2018 08:57

Countries, Regions and Clubs - the Wonder of the UEFA Regions Cup Featured

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MONDAY 4th JUNE Cyncoed Campus and Jenner Park, warm and sunny
(UEFA Regions Cup, Qualifying Group A)

Wales was chosen as a host country in one of the qualifying groups in this year's Regions Cup, which is probably UEFA's least-understood competition. It's an oddity among European tournaments, not quite a club competition, nor an international representative one, and has its own set of entry criteria and rules. Even seasoned and respected observers of world, European and amateur football confess to having a less than complete grasp of the Regions Cup, so it's not surprising that the general public are in the dark. Some of the reporting this week has been pretty misleading too - one online source referring to the Welsh players involved as receiving "Wales call-ups". So before we get to the games, let's try and give them some accurate context:

Firstly, it's a competition strictly for "amateur" footballers. No player who has ever played in a national top-level league (so including the Welsh Premier) would be eligible, nor any who has been on a professional or semi-pro contract.

How countries arrive at their one nominated entrant is up to them: most, like Wales, organise some form of inter-regional contest between selections drawn from one or more local leagues - the South Wales FA squad consists mainly of players from the South Wales Alliance and lowest rung of the Welsh League, and qualified by winning a competition involving the other five Welsh regions. There's a common belief that it's possible for countries to enter an amateur club rather than a selection, but that's expressly forbidden in the rules - squads have to be drawn from at least three different clubs. The smallest countries can enter a selection drawn from their whole territory - San Marino for instance is so small it doesn't have regions.

The other factor which causes some of the confusion is that UEFA requires the national Football Associations to take responsibility for group organisation, finances and logistics, so it's the FAW who are leading the 'hosting' this week, not the South Wales FA. (to continue reading click 'Read More')

And so it is that here in Wales this week there are visiting squads from Greece, Macedonia and Sweden.  Information on the visitors has been hard to track down in advance, so I head up to Cyncoed on a hot summer afternoon with still plenty of questions. The Greeks and Macedonians kick off the mini-tournament in front of a small, curious crowd, mostly neutrals. FAW officials man the gate, microphone etc. It appears the Greek team - Evia Region - are a select side from the large Greek island of that name, which has its own regional league. The Macedonians seem to be a national amateur as far as we can tell, which is maybe sursprising as it's really not much smaller than Wales, though its population is around two-thirds of ours.

 had a vague feeling that the match might be feisty, given tensions between the two countries - Greece has long objected to the word Macedonia being used, given that there's a region of north Greece with the same name. However, these squads don't seem to be bringing that conflict onto the football fields of Wales, as the game unfolds with little drama. Evia take an early lead, but the game is short of goal-mouth incident and the Faroese referee (!) isn't greatly troubled, other than by some feigned injuries from the Greeks as they defend their lead in the closing stages.

Two hours later, in Barry, a much larger crowd (412) assembles to watch local heroes of South Wales region take on a squad from Sweden. Another slight puzzle here, as the squad representing the Gothenburg region has also been named as FK Kozara, a club playing in the regional league of north-west Gotland. Kozara appear to be an immigrants' club, a fact underlined by distinctly un-Swedish names like Kecevic, Abello, Hasan and Ahmed. They must have a few guest players from other clubs too, but does being based around one club give them an advantage? If so they might be South Wales' toughest opposition. As if to add to the confusion over the nature of the competition, the visitors aren't wearing traditional Swedish colours of yellow and blue, but South Wales are wearing the current FAW red kit...

These pre-match thoughts are soon dispelled as South Wales quickly put the visitors under pressure: Penydarren's Chris Colvin-Owens hits the frame of the goal from the first attack, and a couple of minutes later another attack results in a penalty, tucked away by Goytre United's Adam Jenkins. Further sustained pressure is bound to bring more goals, and when a long-throw causes confusion, the ball breaks to Baglan Dragons' Jordan Evans on the edge of the box and his volley arrows into the bottom corner. It's 3-0 almost immediately when Colvin-Owens is allowed to advance and slip the ball past Kocevic in the visiting goal.

Coasting at 3-0, South Wales simply have to see out the second half. There's a flurry of scoring, Colvin-Owen scoring a peach of a goal from long range and then substitute Chris Quick of Canton Libs runs through to score within a minute of coming on. It's a fine start, a comfortable and confidence-building win, the only blemish a couple of yellow cards picked up when the robustness of Welsh tackles go beyond what the Bulgarian referee will tolerate.

Cyncoed Campus, dry and cloudy
Same schedule as Monday, first an afternoon game at the university then South Wales in the evening at Barry.
At Cyncoed, the same small gathering of neutrals and officials has arrived for a game which should be fairly easy to predict, once we've figured out which team is which. Neither of them wears the same kit as Monday, the Greeks from Evia no longer in their pale blue and white, and now on dayglow orange, whist Gothenburg are sporting red FK Kozara shirts.

Based on Monday's games, I assume that the well-organised Greeks should be comfortably better than the team representing Gothenburg, whose defence looked suspect. And early indications support this, Evia taking a lead and looking in control, although they fail to build on the lead as quickly as South Wales had done at Jenner Park. The Swedish side look more assured on the ball now and are not outclassed, but when they concede again in the second half the three points look safe for Evia.

For the rest of this game, rather than press for more goals, Evia begin to indulge in some time-wasting, principally with a series of exaggerated reactions to minor contacts and feigned injuries. So the small group of neutrals cheers when Gothenburg pull a goal back with a fine strike from the edge of the box. Their first goal of the tournament gives them belief, and they pile forward with added confidence for an unlikely equaliser. There's a considerable cheer again when a firm downward header puts them level at 2-2, a score which they hold onto through stoppage time.

Jenner Park, cool and drizzly
72 hours on from Monday evening, and a very different feel to proceedings at Jenner Park. The weather has changed for the worse, but as far as the football is concerned we've come with more confidence: there's even talk of what South Wales need to do to top the group, and of "even a point" tonight being enough to seal qualification.

However, when the match starts, this too is very different to Monday: the Macedonians, so anodyne and goal-shy against Evia, look far more of a threat, whereas South Wales toil in vain through the first half for the expected breakthrough. In fact, as the interval approaches, it's impossible to escape the conclusion that they're very fortunate to be level, with Macedonia missing a couple of good opportunities and Stephen Price pulling off more than one fine diving save.

Early in the second half Macedonia finally score the goal that, frankly, has been coming: one more killer diagonal ball down the right, a pinpoint cross into the box and an easy finish - nicely worked. When they add a second with 20 minutes to go, it seems to be game over for the home side, who have looked sluggish and second best in midfield all night. Late in the game they stage a rally, which results in enough pressure for Christopher Quick to pounce two minutes from time, but - unlike this afternoon - the improbable equaliser doesn't materialise.

SUNDAY 10th JUNE Jenner Park - a warm, sunny afternoon.

Matchday 3 of the Regions Cup Qualifying tournament. So I have a Sunday afternoon journey across Cardiff, carefully planned to avoid disruption and city-centre crowds caused by the suffrage parade or sun-followers heading to Barry Island. I don't see any crowds, as it happens, the trains in mid-afternoon proving quieter than expected. After a leisurely stroll I'm back in Jenner Park for the third time this week.

Our midweek optimism is a distant memory. After Thursday's disappointment, the South Wales team's chances of qualifying hang in the balance - if they win today, they stand a good chance of first or second. But if the Macedonian Amateurs win their simultaneous game, they'll top the group in any case. In fact, all the teams in the group need a win today.

It's warm and sunny again, like Monday and unlike Thursday. But which SWFA will we see - Monday's or Thursday's? There are some team changes after Thursday night, so clearly the manager has seen the need to alter things, though this may be tactical if he's got ideas of how to play today's opponents.

Experience of watching Welsh adventures in Europe has taught me to adopt a default position of pessimism: the disappointments hurt a little less that way, and the successes are in no sense less exhilarating for being unanticipated. Taking a line of form through games against Macedonia, the Evia Region could be just as tough for Steve Green's side - and they'll also be tricky to play against, with a well-organised defence and a wide array of gamesmanship ploys.

But, like on Monday, the South Wales team starts at a high tempo. Their first attacking efforts bring a second minute throw-in, taken long into the Greek six-yard area. It's not dealt with and in a scramble it crosses the line twice, thankfully spotted by the assistant referee who is shouting "goal, goal!" into his microphone. The goal is given, awarded to Connor Keating of Penydarren.

Now South Wales have something to lose. And so do I - hope. Once again the John Cleese line from "Clockwise" comes to mind: "It's not the despair. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand". Happy that the Welsh team are now in a position to win and qualify, I know that at any time in the coming 88 minutes hopes could be dashed.

For the remaining 43 minutes of the first half, the South Wales team hold their lead. There are chances at both ends: the Greeks hit the bar once, while the ball just fails to fall kindly for Chris Quick and Jordan Evans. I'm more concerned that the Greeks are beginning to look more comfortable in midfield, although not to the point of dictating the game the way the Macedonians were three days ago. There's a bit of over-reaction from the Greeks, and one stricken player is eventually wheeled away on the stretcher, only to re-appear from the touchline a minute later.

Just before the interval there's a minor contretemps as the ball goes out for a throw near the South Wales goal-line. The strict and impressive Bulgarian referee is on the spot, brandishing his red card at Tzavras.

The Greeks clearly need to push forward in the second half, and being a man short South Wales should be able to exploit gaps, as long as they don't sit too deep defending the lead. Thankfully, there is no sign they will do that, adopting instead the 'attack is the best form of defence' policy. It pays off four minutes in, when Chris Quick goes down under a hard challenge on the goal-line and a penalty is given. It's disputed of course, and there's a long delay as goalkeeper Ntoumanis has to be escorted back to his line to face the kick. But Alex Long of Sully Sports holds his nerve and sends him the wrong way from the spot.

Hopes raised further: 2-0 up against ten men. But my inner pessimist reminds me there's over half an hour left - don't get too hopeful. Also news comes through that the Macedonians are ahead in the simultaneous game and on course to win the group.

But the next passage of play is less tense than it might be. The game is even, a few dangerous attacks at both ends, and we approach the last quarter of an hour with the lead intact. Stephen Green has made a couple of substitutions, with Chris Colvin-Owen replacing Quick up front. He's quickly causing problems for the Greek defence, as is Trefelin's Travis Monk-Landeg who came on at the same time. A third goal, arrives, with the Greeks pressing forward and finding themselves outnumbered on the left side of defence. When the ball comes across, Alex Lloyd of Penydarren is on hand to score.

Now the win must be safe, and it's a question of how many the South Wales side will win by, and whether it will be enough to bring qualification. The first question is answered quickly, when Andre Phillips of Canton Libs hits a glorious volley across Ntoumanis and into the bottom corner of the net (photo below). That's the end of the scoring, and the 4-0 win leaves the Welsh team with six points and a goal difference of +8. The general assumption is that we'll at least have to wait until we see the final record of the 2nd-placed team in Qualifying Group B out in Slovenia on Tuesday. 

But someone in UEFA HQ has been doing the maths. With the top two in Group B meeting on Tuesday, it's impossible, whatever the result, for the second team to better the Welsh record. So an official tweet from UEFA confirms South Wales as the first-ever qualifiers from Wales for the next stage, the Intermediate Stage groups held most likely in the autumn. So celebrations won't be dampened by a fear of later disappointment. Having gone into today expecting nothing other than disappointment, I can now savour the pleasure of a Welsh success that I hadn't taken for granted.


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