Optibet Virsliga season has reached the halfway point, which means that it is time for the second international break. This time around it will be memorable for Valmiera FC and its players. For Valmiera, there will be a new experience in the club’s history – debut in the UEFA Champions League qualification tournament. But let’s not run ahead of ourselves, first, the opponent has to be decided.
What is the UEFA Champions League? It is the biggest European football club tournament organized by the Union of European Football Associations. All the best European clubs play in this tournament, earning their ticket when they become champions of their countries. The competition starts with the qualification round, in which 52 teams participate. Only six of these make it teams in the group tournament, in the group stage there are already 26 top-level clubs awaiting. In case of failure, depending on the qualification round, the teams get the right to continue participating in the Eurocups by participating in the qualification of the UEFA European or UEFA European Conference League tournament.
We were able to give our first happy news already at the end of March – after three years, when we played the Eurocup games on away pitches, the time has come for the gusts of European football to flow into our Valmiera, our home, the Janis Dalins Stadium. The games themselves are expected to be held in the second (11th or 12th) and third week (18th or 19th) of July, but we also expect an important event this month. The draw is where we will determine our opponents for the first qualifying round. It will happen very soon – on June 20.
Until now, all our potential opponents have been determined, except for one – the Bulgarian champion has not yet been crowned. At the moment, we have very few UEFA ranking points, so we will be among the unseeded teams, but we will face potentially stronger, more experienced opponents: Ferencvarosi (Hungary), Qarabag (Azerbaijan), Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia), Sheriff Tiraspole (Moldova), BATE Borisov (Belarus), Astana (Kazakhstan), Maccabi Haifa (Israel), FK Žalgiris (Lithuania), HJK (Finland), Flora (Estonia), Shamrock Rovers (Ireland), The New Saints (Wales), Olimpija Ljubljana (Slovenia), Zrijnski Mostar (Bosnia), CSKA Sofia or Ludogorets (Bulgaria).
Also, during the break of the international selection window, several Valmiera FC players will rush to help the national teams – Alvis Jaunzems, Daniels Balodis, and Maksims Tonisevs have been called up to the Latvian national team, while Niks Sliede and Davis Veisbuks will rush to help the Latvian youth national teams, respectively U21 and U19, but on the big European stage, our midfielder Ivan Zhelizko will stepping into the lights. The fight for the 2023 European Championship title awaits him, in the final tournament, our leader will represent the Ukrainian U-21 national team.
Zhelizko helped Ukraine qualify for the Euro 2023 finals last year, and this time he will also be given the opportunity to fight for his country on the football pitch, as well as prove himself as a player against very strong opponents. The big football forum will take place in Georgia and Romania from June 21 to July 8. In the group stage, Ukrainians have to play against Croatia (21.06, 19:00), Romania (24.06, 19:00), and Spain (27.06, 21:45). The group tournament will end on June 28, when the best two teams of each group will be determined, who will be given the opportunity to fight in the quarterfinals, while the final is scheduled for July 8, in the Georgian city of Batumi.
Ivan Zhelizko clearly knows his team’s and his own personal goals. They have one task – to go to the field and make the entire Ukrainian nation proud, especially people who are forced to fight every day to protect their homes.
Ivan Želizko: ”My feelings are indescribable, I am very proud and grateful for this call. I will do everything to help the team. I believe that we will be able to show our best game. I expect that we will give everything so that our heroes, our soldiers at home can feel joy and pride for their football players even for a moment. The goals are clear, first, we have to make the playoffs, then we have to do everything to win the title. For myself? I have to do everything I can to give the team a chance to win, I want to prove myself from the best side. I know that in such a tournament the players have a lot of attention, many eyes watch your games from the sidelines. There will definitely be scouts from big clubs in the tournament, this is also a little motivation for me. At the end of the day, it is the least of my concerns, we will play for our country, for our people. It is our duty to remind you that there is still a war going on in Ukraine. I did not know that I would be the first player of Optibet Virsliga to represent one of the teams and the entire league in a youth tournament of this scale, but I will do everything in this regard to live up to the expectations placed on me. Before the season, I said in an interview that this tournament will be very important for Ukraine. Our army defends our families, and our cities from the constant attacks of damned Russia. It is they who give us the opportunity to play football, to do what we really love. Every day new rockets, new bombs fall in Ukraine, cities suffer and there are many victims. It is for this reason that our team will be united, like a real family, and we will fight just like the men who defend our country.”