Fans in red gathered at Milan’s Bergamo Airport hoping to catch a glimpse of their victorious heroes on their way back to Manchester. Their team has just won a European trophy, evoking memories of Sir Bobby Charlton, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo doing the same thing.
Only the congregation were not there to greet a side brimming with the world’s biggest stars, but they were waiting for non-league FC United of Manchester, who won for the first time in June. Fenix Trophy – a European competition for semi-professional and amateur clubs.
In doing so, FC United – a breakaway club founded in 2005 by disaffected Manchester United fans and currently in the seventh tier of English football – have earned themselves a special status.
“We were the only English club to win a European trophy last season, so I’ll take it,” laughs Neil Reynolds, boss of the Reds.
“Bringing the trophy home through the airport and having my kids see us win it was amazing. We can say we’ve 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 with FC United.”
The idea for the Fenix Trophy was first conceived at the end of 2020 by Alessandro Aleotti, chairman of Italian non-league side Brera FC.
Aleotti founded Brera in 2000 with a vision to become 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 tournament’s core values: friendly; European; non-professional; innovative; and xenial, which comes from the Ancient Greek word xenos, denoting an attitude of hospitality toward strangers.
However, the Aleottis didn’t want just any old clubs to become a Fenix member, and began looking for non-professional outfits from across the continent that met 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 tiers played in their respective countries – Leo says they wanted to “find clubs that are exceptional, iconic on a certain level and gave visibility to non-professional football”.
For last year’s entrants, this meant clubs that have a history but have fallen on hard times, or clubs with a clear social or community purpose, such as being fan-owned 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 boasted Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard as a youth team. alumni.
Brera also have their own link to history thanks to their home, Arena Civica. The ground first opened in 1807, making it the oldest stadium in continental 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 team based in the Czech capital that prides itself on providing an inclusive environment for all.
“We weren’t in the first round of clubs that Brera talked to and I think we were the last to approach them,” said Prague Raptors English president Daz Moss, who started the club in 2017 based on his five -year-old son Lukas.
“We were chosen because we did a project a few months before with AKS Zly, a Polish team 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 to shirt sales, we’ve seen an increase in countries that we’ve been involved in at.”
Last year’s tournament saw two groups of four play each other home and away, with the winners of each division coming together for the final in Rimini, Italy in June. The other six teams also attended 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 the competition created that stood out for the Fenix founders.
“It was amazing and everyone was so enthusiastic,” says Leo. “We had a very diverse mix of players coming from all over the world and with every kind of experience, from UPS drivers to university students.
“For some of the players it was great to play in another country. For some it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I remember there was one guy I saw from Gambia who almost cried when he got on a plane to play in Poland.
“It was his first time catching a plane, so to get that experience because he played in the Fenix Trophy is the best projection of the competition you can make.”
For the victorious FC United, it was a chance to get their hands on a special piece of silverware and give their fans, some of whom had previously traveled across Europe for big Champions League nights with Manchester United, an opportunity to reliving those memories in their new guise.
Fitting the extra games and travel into an already busy non-league schedule did present challenges for the Reds’ part-timers, but few complained.
Reynolds says: “To play in Milan on a Wednesday night, we left on Wednesday morning to fly over, had the game and traveled back on Thursday afternoon. We got home on Thursday night, the guys had to go to work on Friday, and we had three hour traveled to play Morpeth away on the Saturday.
“It makes me laugh when I hear these Premier League managers moaning about European and league stipulations.
“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 swimming pool to help recovery between games, but they’ll never forget the experience not. As difficult and demanding as it is, we wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The second edition of the Fenix Trophy is about to get underway, and it has already grown in size, with nine clubs now competing in a three-group first stage 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 pleased with the competition’s progress so far, but has ambitions for it to grow even further in the future if budgets allow.
“There are three new teams and two new countries entering this year, but there is a lot of room left to grow and improve,” he says.
“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 jump to another type of format – maybe a knock-out phase – which allows us to have a much wider network.
“A big part of the choice is the financial affordability of clubs and it’s harder for those from less wealthy regions of Europe to finance themselves to play in four or maybe six games every year.
“There has 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 that future is. It’s ‘ a target we have to aim for because that’s the way to cover a lot more ground.”
Despite the pure competition of the Fenix Trophy, finance is the key to the tournament really taking off on a much larger scale. So does Leo have any possible sponsors in mind?
“Because the tournament is self-financed, we rely on the low-cost airlines, so maybe Ryanair should be our sponsor at some point,” he thought jokingly. “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.