Fans in red gathered at Milan Bergamo airport, hoping for a glimpse of their victorious heroes on the way back to Manchester. Their team had just won a European trophy, evoking memories of Sir Bobby Charlton, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo doing the same thing.
Only the crowd was not there to welcome a side with the world’s biggest stars, instead they were waiting for non-league FC United of Manchester, who in June won the inaugural. Phoenix Trophy – A European competition for semi-professional and amateur clubs.
In doing so, FC United – a breakaway club founded by dissident Manchester United fans in 2005 and currently in the seventh tier of English football – has 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 boss Neil Reynolds.
“To bring the trophy home through the airport and for my children to see us winning it was incredible. We can say we have won a European trophy and nobody can take that away from us.
“Our fans saw it happen with Manchester United, now they’ve seen it happen with FC United.”
The idea for the Phoenix Trophy was first mooted in late 2020 by Alessandro Aleotti, chairman of Italian non-league side 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 out to create one.
The name Phoenix is an acronym that represents the tournament’s core values: friendly; European; non-professional; innovative; and xenial, which comes from the ancient Greek word xenos, indicating an attitude of hospitality to strangers.
The Aleottis did not simply want any old clubs to become a Fenix member, and began looking for non-professional outfits from the continent that fit their criteria.
While there were certainly logistical and competitive factors to consider – such as proximity to a major airport and ensuring teams played between the sixth and eighth tier in their respective nations – Leo says they wanted “to find clubs that are exceptional, iconic on some level and has visibility to non-professional football”.
For last year’s entrants, that meant clubs with a storied past but fallen on hard times, or with a clear social or community purpose, such as supporters-owned ones like FC United.
Among the competition were two-time Belgian champions KSK Beveren, who lost to Barcelona in the 1978-79 Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final, and Amsterdam’s DWS, who won the Eredivisie title in 1964 and count Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard as youth- Team. alumni.
Brera also have their own link to history thanks to their home, Arena Civica. The ground was first opened in 1807, making it the oldest stadium in mainland Europe, and was the former home of both major Milan clubs before they moved to the San Siro.
At the other end of the scale are Prague Raptors, a side based in the Czech capital that prides itself on providing an inclusive environment for all.
“We weren’t in the first section of clubs Brera talked to and think we were the last they approached,” says Prague Raptors’ English president Daz Moss, who started the club in 2017 on the whim of his five years. Old son Lucas.
“We were selected because we did a project a few months before with AKS Zly, a Polish side that was 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 all the things we’re trying to do. It really helps in terms of people noticing us and even just down to shirt sales, we’ve seen an uptick in countries that we have . were involved with.”
Last year’s tournament saw two groups of four play each other home and away, with the winners of each section coming together for the final in Rimini in Italy in June. The other six sides also took part to play matches based on their group standings to determine a final ranking.
And while FC United prevailed in the final with a 2-0 victory over Prague Raptors to lift the trophy, it was the human stories and moments that the competition created that stood out for the Phoenix founders.
“It was amazing and everyone was so enthusiastic,” Leo says. “We had a very diverse composition of players from all over the world and with every kind of experience, from UPS drivers to university students.
“For some of the players to play in another country was great. For some it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I remember there was one guy I saw from Gambia who was almost in tears When he was on a plane to play in Poland.
“It was his first time catching a plane, so to get that experience because he was playing in the Phoenix Trophy is the best projection of the competition you can make.”
For victors FC United, it was a chance to get their hands on a special piece of silverware and give their fans, some of whom used to travel across Europe for big Champions League nights with Manchester United, a chance to relive The memories in their new guise.
Fitting the extra matches and travel into an already busy non-league schedule has come with challenges for the Reds’ part-time players, but few have complained.
Reynolds says: “Playing in Milan on a Wednesday evening, we left on Wednesday morning to fly over, had the game and drove back on Thursday afternoon. We got home on Thursday evening, the boys had to go to work on Friday. And we’re traveling three hours to play Morpeth away on Saturday.
“It makes me laugh when I hear Premier League managers cringing about European and league fixtures.
“It is full and there is no time to rest, especially for the boys who are engineers or electricians, and do not have the benefit of a massage or a swimming pool to help recovery between matches, but they will never forget the experience. Hard and demanding it is, we wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The second edition of the Fenix Trophy is about to begin, and it has already grown in size, with nine clubs now participating in a three-group first phase ahead of the finals tournament this summer.
FC United’s defense kicks off against KSK Beveren on November 15, 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 grow even further in the future if budgets allow.
“There are three new teams and two new countries coming in this year, but there’s a lot of room left to grow and improve,” he says.
“The current format is great and as long as we keep the numbers to 12, 15 or 18 teams, we can implement the three-team group format, although at some point we need to make a jump to another type of format – perhaps A knockout phase – which enables us to cast a much wider net.
“A huge part of the selection is the financial affordability of clubs and it is difficult for those from less wealthy regions of Europe to self-fund playing in four or maybe six games every year.
“There needs to be a financial incentive for those who go through to the next stage 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 off the future is. Goal what We should aim because that’s the way to cover a lot more territory.”
Despite the purity of competition of the Fenix Trophy, finances are the key to the tournament really taking off on a much larger scale. Does Leo have any possible sponsors in mind?
“Because the tournament is self-financed, we count on the low-cost airlines, so maybe Ryanair should be our sponsor at some point,” he wistfully pondered. “We have so many pictures of teams posing in front of planes, they should definitely consider it.”
Get a benefactor on board and the sky really is the limit for the Fenix Trophy.