Fans in red gathered at Milan Bergamo Airport, hoping to catch a glimpse of their victorious heroes on their way back to Manchester. Their team had just lifted a European trophy, evoking memories of Sir Bobby Charlton, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo doing the same.
Only the congregation weren’t there to greet a side brimming with the world’s biggest stars, instead they were expecting non-league side Manchester FC United, who won the first Fenix Trophy – a European competition for semi-professional and amateur clubs.
In doing so, FC United – a breakaway club created by dissident Manchester United supporters in 2005 and currently the seventh tier in English football – had earned themselves special status.
“We were the only English club to win a European trophy last season, so I’m going to take it,” laughs Reds boss Neil Reynolds.
“Bringing the trophy home via the airport and seeing my kids see us win was amazing. We can say we won a European trophy and no one can take it away from us.
“Our fans have seen it happen with Manchester United, now they’ve seen it with FC United.”
The idea of the Fenix trophy was first mooted at the end of 2020 by Alessandro Aleotti, president of non-league Italian side Brera FC.
Aleotti established Brera in 2000 with a vision of becoming Milan’s third football club. He saw European competition as the perfect step towards that goal, so with the help of his son Leo, Brera’s managing director, he set about creating one.
The name Fenix is an acronym representing the core values of the tournament: friendly; European; Not professional; innovative; and xenial, which comes from the ancient Greek word xenos, indicating an attitude of hospitality towards strangers.
However, the Aleottis didn’t just want former clubs to join Fenix and began scouting for non-professional kits across the continent that matched their criteria.
While there are certain logistical and competitive factors to consider – such as being close to a major airport and ensuring teams play between the sixth and eighth tier in their respective nations – Leo says they wanted ” find exceptional clubs, emblematic at a certain level and gave visibility to non-professional football”.
For last year’s entrants, that meant clubs that have a storied past but have fallen on hard times, or those with a clear social or community purpose, such as belonging to supporters like FC United.
Among the competition were two-time Belgian champions KSK Beveren, who lost to Barcelona in the semi-finals of the 1978-79 Cup Winners’ Cup, and DWS Amsterdam, who won the Eredivisie title in 1964 and counts Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard as the youth team. old students.
Brera also has its own connection to history through its home, Arena Civica. The ground opened in 1807, making it the oldest stadium in continental Europe, and was the former home of Milan’s two great clubs before they moved to San Siro.
At the other end of the scale are the Prague Raptors, a team based in the Czech capital who pride themselves on providing an inclusive environment for all.
“We weren’t in the first section of the clubs Brera was talking to and we think we were the last ones they approached,” said Prague Raptors England chairman Daz Moss, who started the club in 2017. on the whim of his five-year contract. eldest son Lukas.
“We were selected because we had done a project a few months before with AKS Zly, a Polish team that was in last year’s tournament, to bring more girls into football, because we want to break down barriers and are very pro-diversity.
“It was amazing for us. It shines a light on everything we try to do. It really helps people notice us and even down to the shirt sales we’ve seen an increase in the countries we’ve been involved in with.”
Last year’s tournament saw two groups of four face each other home and away, with the winners of each section meeting for the final in Rimini, Italy in June. The other six teams were also present to play matches based on their group standings to decide a final standings.
And while FC United triumphed in the final with a 2-0 victory over the Prague Raptors to lift the trophy, it was the human stories and the moments created by the competition that stood out for the founders of Fenix.
“It was amazing and everyone was so excited,” Leo said. “We had a very diverse roster of players from all over the world and with all kinds of backgrounds, from UPS drivers to college students.
“For some of the players playing in another country was great. For some it was a once in a lifetime experience and I remember there was a guy I saw from The Gambia who was almost crying when he’s got on a plane to play in Poland.
“It was his first time on a plane, so getting that experience because he was playing in the Fenix Trophy is the best projection of the competition you can make.”
For the FC United winners, it was an opportunity to get their hands on a special piece of silverware and gift their fans, some of whom used to travel across Europe for the big nights of the Champions League with Manchester United, the opportunity to relive those memories in their new guise.
Fitting in extra games and traveling through an already busy non-league schedule presented challenges for the Reds’ part-timers, but few complained.
Reynolds says: “Playing Milan on a Wednesday night, we left on Wednesday morning to fly over, played the game and came back on Thursday afternoon. We came home on Thursday night, the guys had to go to work on Friday and we would travel three hours to play Morpeth on Saturdays.
“It makes me laugh when I hear these Premier League managers complaining about European fixtures and the league.
“It’s sold out and there’s no time to rest, especially for those guys who are engineers or electricians, and don’t get a massage or a pool to help recover between games, but they will never forget the experience. As hard and demanding as it is, we wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The second edition of the Fenix Trophy is about to kick off, and it has already gained momentum, with nine clubs now taking part in an initial three-group stage ahead of the finals this summer.
FC United’s defense will start against KSK Beveren on November 15, with Spain’s Cuenca Mestallistes completing their squad.
Brera’s Leo Aleotti is happy with the competition’s progress so far, but has ambitions for it to grow even more in the future if budgets allow.
“There are three new teams and two new countries entering this year, but there is still plenty of room to grow and improve,” he said.
“This current format is great and as long as we keep the numbers at 12, 15 or 18 teams we can implement this three team group format, although at some point we will have to make a jump to another type of format. – maybe a knockout phase – which allows us to have a much wider network.
“A big part of the selection is the affordability of clubs and it’s harder for those in less affluent parts of Europe to support themselves by playing four or maybe six games every year.
“There needs to be a financial incentive for those who take the next step to be able to afford the extra games and that’s a setup I see for the future, although I don’t know how far that future is. It’s something we should be aiming for because it’s the way to cover a lot more territory.”
Despite the purity of the Fenix Trophy competition, finances are key for the tournament to really take off on a much larger scale. So, does Leo have any possible sponsors in mind?
“Because the tournament is self-funded, we rely on budget airlines, so maybe Ryanair should be our sponsor at some point,” he jokes. “We have so many photos of teams posing in front of planes that they should definitely think about it.”
Get a Benefactor on board and the sky really is the limit for the Fenix Trophy.
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