Red-clad fans gathered at Milan Bergamo airport, hoping to catch a glimpse of their victorious heroes on their way back to Manchester. Their team had just won the European Cup, reminiscent of Sir Bobby Charlton, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo doing the same thing.
Only the congregation was not there to greet a side full of the world’s biggest stars, instead they were waiting for non-league FC United of Manchester, who in June won the competition. Fenix Trophy – European competition for professional and non-professional teams.
In doing so, FC United – a breakaway club founded by Manchester United fans in 2005 and currently in the seventh tier of English football – had achieved a special status.
“We were the only English team to win the European Cup last year, so I’ll take it,” laughed Reds boss Neil Reynolds.
“Bringing the trophy home at the airport and having my children see us win it was amazing. We can say we won the European Cup and nobody can take that away from us.
“Our fans saw it happen with Manchester United, now they saw it with FC United.”
The concept of the Fenix Trophy was first launched in late 2020 by Alessandro Aleotti, the chairman of Italian non-league club Brera FC.
Aleotti founded Brera in 2000 with the vision of becoming Milan’s third football club. He saw a European championship as the perfect step to achieve that goal, so with the help of his son Leo, the general manager of Brera, he set about creating one.
The name Fenix is an acronym that represents the main points of the competition: friendliness; Europe; non-professionals; creativity; and xenial, which comes from the Ancient Greek word xenos, indicating a sense of hospitality towards strangers.
Aleottis didn’t just want veterans to join Fenix, however, and began looking for casual outfits from across the continent that fit their needs.
Although there were certain administrative and competitive factors to consider – such as proximity to a major airport and ensuring teams were played between the sixth and eighth divisions in their respective nations – Leo he says they wanted “to find unique teams, unique in certain situations. It gave visibility to non-professional football”.
For last year’s entrants, that meant clubs that have a long history but have fallen on hard times, or that have a clear social or national purpose, such as being supporters like FC United.
Among the competitors were two-time Belgian champions KSK Beveren, beaten by Barcelona in the 1978-79 Cup Winners Cup semi-final, and Amsterdam’s DWS, which won the Eredivisie title in 1964 and featured Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard as a youth team. undergraduate students.
The Brera also have their own link to history thanks to their home, the Arena Civica. The original stadium opened in 1807, making it the oldest stadium in Europe, and it was the first home of Milan’s top teams before they moved to San Siro.
At the other end of the scale are the Prague Raptors, a side based in the Czech capital that prides itself on providing an inclusive environment.
“We weren’t the first of the teams Brera talked to and we think we were the last they approached,” says Prague Raptors English president Daz Moss, who started the team in year 2017 with his five-year wish. old son Lukas.
“We were chosen because we did a project a few months ago with AKS Zly, the Polish side that was in last year’s tournament, to get more girls into football, because we want to break down barriers and we ts It supports a wide range of models.
“It was amazing for us. It shines a light on everything we’re trying to do. It helps a lot in terms of getting people to recognize us and even just selling shirts, we’ve seen the rise of countries that we’ve done. . met with.”
Last year’s competition saw two teams of four play home and away, with the winners of each group meeting for the final in Rimini, Italy in June. The other six sides were also there to play matches based on their group standings to decide the final standings.
And when FC United won the final with a 2-0 victory over Prague Raptors to lift the trophy, it was the stories of the people and the moments the competition created that stood out to the Fenix founders.
Leo says: “It was amazing and everyone was so enthusiastic. “We had different players from all over the world and with all kinds of experience, from drivers UPS to university students.
“For some of the players going to play in another country was great. For others it was an experience of a lifetime and I remember there was one young man I saw from Gambia who was almost cried when he got on the plane to play in Poland.
“It was his first time holding a plane, so to get that experience because he was playing in the Fenix Trophy is the best show of competition you can do.”
For the winners FC United, it was a chance to get their hands on a special piece of silverware and give it to their fans, some of whom used to travel across Europe for the big Champions nights League and Manchester United, the chance to repeat those memories of their youth. a myth.
Combining more games and settling into an already busy non-league schedule came with challenges for the Reds’ part-time players, but few were complaining.
“When we played Milan on Wednesday night, we left on Wednesday morning to fly out, play the game and come back on Thursday afternoon. We got home on Thursday night, the boys were had to go to work on Friday and we were traveling three hours to play Morpeth away on Saturday.
“I laugh when I hear these Premier League managers whining about European games and leagues.
“It’s packed and there’s no time to rest, especially for these guys who are engineers or electricians, and don’t have the benefit of a massage or a swimming pool to help recover between games , but they won’t forget that experience. Although it’s difficult and difficult, we wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The second edition of the Fenix Cup is about to begin, and it has grown in size, with nine teams taking part in the first three-team group stage ahead of the finals this summer .
FC United’s defense begins against KSK Beveren on November 15, while Spanish side Cuenca Mestallistes complete their group.
Brera’s Leo Aleotti is pleased with the progress of the tournament so far, but has ambitions for it to go even further in the future if the budget allows.
He says: “There are three new teams and two new countries entering this year, but there is still a lot of room to grow and improve.”
“This current structure is good and as long as we keep the numbers at 12, 15 or 18 teams, we can implement this three-team structure, although at some point we will need to jump to another type of structure – perhaps a knock-on step – enabling us to cast a wider net.
“A big part of the selection is the financial ability of the clubs, and it is even more difficult for those from the richest parts of Europe to make a living by playing in four or six games every year.
“There needs to be a financial incentive for those who go to the next level to be able to pay for more games and that’s the setup I see for the future, although I don’t know how far that future is. goal. what we should be looking for because it’s a way to cover a lot of ground.”
Although the Fenix Trophy competition is pure, the money is the key to the competition that really starts on a bigger scale. So has Leo thought about potential sponsors?
“Because the competition depends on money, we depend on cheap flights, so maybe Ryanair should be our sponsor for a while,” he thinks jokingly. “We have a lot of pictures of groups standing in front of planes, they should definitely think about it.”
Get a helper on board and the sky’s the limit for the Fenix Trophy.