Fans in red gathered at Milan Bergamo airport, hoping to see their victorious heroes on their way back to Manchester. Their team had just won a European trophy, memories of Sir Bobby Charlton, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo doing the same.
Only the crowd wasn’t there to greet a side bursting with the world’s biggest stars, instead they were waiting for non-league FC United of Manchester, who won in June. Fenix Trophy – A European competition for semi-professional and amateur clubs.
In this way, FC United – a breakaway club founded in 2005 by rival Manchester United fans and now in the seventh tier of English football – had earned itself a special status.
“We were the only English club to win a European trophy last season, so I’ll take that,” laughs Reds chairman Neil Reynolds.
“To bring the trophy home via the airport and for my kids to see us win it was incredible. We can say we’ve won a European trophy and nobody can take that away from us.
“Our friends saw it happen with Manchester United, now they saw it with FC United.”
The idea of the Fenix Trophy was first floated at the end of 2020 by Alessandro Aleotti, the president of the Italian non-league Brera FC.
Aleotti founded 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 general manager, he set about creating one.
The name Fenix is an acronym that represents the core values of the tournament: friendship; European; non-professional; new and xenial, which comes from the Ancient Greek word xenos, denotes an attitude of hospitality towards strangers.
Aleottis didn’t just want any old clubs to become a Fenix member, though, and began looking for non-professional outfits from around the continent to fit their criteria.
While there were some logistical and competitive factors to consider – such as proximity to a major airport and ensuring teams between the sixth and eighth ranks played in their respective nations – Leo says they wanted “clubs that are exceptional at some level”. , were symbolic to see and see. It gave visibility to non-professional football.”
For last year’s participants, this means that clubs with a storied past but fallen on hard times, or those with a clear social or community purpose, such as FC United, have supporters.
The competition included two-time Belgian champions KSK Beveren, who lost to Barcelona in the 1978-79 Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final, and DWS Amsterdam, who won the Eredivisie title in 1964 with Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. counted as a youth team. alumni.
Brera also has a connection to history thanks to its home, the Arena Civica. The ground first opened in 1807, making it the oldest stadium in continental Europe, and was previously home to both of Milan’s biggest clubs before they moved to the San Siro.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Prague Raptors, a side based in the Czech capital that prides itself on providing an inclusive environment for all.
English president of Prague Raptors Daz Moss, who took over the club in 2017 after a five-year hiatus, says: “We were not in the first division of the clubs that Brera spoke to and we think we are the last that they were close.” Lukas’s older son.
“We were chosen because a few months ago we created a project with AKS Zly, a Polish side that participated in last year’s tournament, to get more girls into football, because we want to break down barriers and are very pro-diversity. .
“It’s been amazing for us. It shines a light on everything we’re trying to do. It really helps in terms of what makes our people stand out and even just for shirt sales, we’ve seen an increase in countries where we’ve been involved. have been.”
Last year’s tournament saw two groups of four play each other home and away, with the winners of each group meeting for the final in Rimini in Italy in June. Six other sides were also set to play matches based on their group standings to decide a final ranking.
And when FC United won the final with a 2-0 victory over Prague Raptors and lifted the trophy, it was the stories and moments of human competition that stood out to the founders of Fenix.
“It was amazing and everyone was so excited,” says Leo. “We had a very diverse cast of players who came from all over the world and had all kinds of experience, from UPS drivers to college students.
“For some players it was great to play in another country. For some it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I remember one guy I saw from Gambia who was almost crying when he got on the plane to play in Poland. .
“It was the first time he took a plane, so to get that experience because he was playing in the Fenix Trophy is the best race you can do.”
For winners FC United, it was a chance to get their hands on a special piece of silverware and give their fans, some of whom traveled across Europe with Manchester United for the big Champions League nights, a chance to relive those memories. in the new self. guise
Juggling the extra matches and travel through an already busy non-league schedule proved difficult for the Reds’ part-time players, but few were complaining.
Reynolds says: “Wednesday night we were playing in Milan, we left on Wednesday morning to fly out, it was the game and we came back on Thursday afternoon. We got home on Thursday night, the boys had to go to work on Friday. And we were three hours away. to play at Morpeth on Saturday.
“I laugh when I hear these Premier League managers whining about European competitions and the league.
“It’s packed and there’s no time to rest, especially for these guys who are engineers or electricians, and there’s no benefit of a massage or a pool to help recovery between matches, but they’ll never forget the experience. How hard and demanding. We wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The second edition of the Fenix Trophy is about to begin, and it has already grown, with nine clubs now taking part in the first round of three groups ahead of this summer’s finals tournament.
FC United’s defense kicks off on November 15 against KSK Beveren, with Spanish side Cuenca Mestallistes completing their group.
Brera’s Leo Aleotti is happy with the competition’s progress so far, but has ambitions to make it even bigger in the future if budgets allow.
“There are three new teams and two new countries coming in this year, but there’s plenty of room to grow and develop,” he says.
“This current format is very good and as long as we keep the numbers at 12, 15 or 18 teams, we can do this three-team group format, although at some point we will need to go to another type of format – maybe a failed phase – which allows us to have a very wide network.
“A big part of the selection is the financial affordability of the clubs and it’s harder for those from the less affluent regions of Europe to finance themselves to play in four or maybe six games every year.
“There needs to be a financial incentive for those who go to the next stage to be able to make more money for the games and that’s an institution that I see for the future, although I don’t know how far that future is. That’s the goal that we have to make.” goal because it’s a way to cover a lot more territory.”
Despite the purity of the Fenix Trophy competition, the finances are the key to the tournament really rising to a great level. So does Leo have potential sponsors in mind?
“Since the tournament is self-funded, we count on low-cost airlines, so maybe Ryanair will be our sponsor at some point,” he muses with a joke. “We have a lot of pictures of teams posing in front of airplanes, they should definitely consider it.”
Get a benefactor on board and the sky really is the limit for the Fenix Trophy.