Football in the Faroe Islands has never been so popular. The country managed to qualify for its first-ever UEFA final tournament, while participation levels back home are booming.
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Tuesday saw one of the proudest moments in the footballing history of the Faroe Islands come to an end, as the nation of just 50,000 inhabitants bowed out of the UEFA European Under-17 Championship finals in Croatia.
The small archipelago in the North Atlantic had qualified for their first-ever UEFA final tournament, which is quite an achievement for a country that only became a member of European football’s governing body in 1990.
"This is without a doubt a big boost for Faroese football," said the general secretary of the Faroe Islands Football Association (FSF), Virgar Hvidbro. “This is actually a dream that came earlier than we expected.”
The Faroes ended their adventure in Croatia without a victory, but they gained valuable experience playing against some of the top names in this age group across the continent. Áki Johansen, the head coach of the Faroe Islands U17 side, believes that the team’s success in qualifying for the finals could help to get even more people involved in the sport back home.
"We have seen how many fans we have had on Facebook and on the live stream," Johansen reflected.
"Attention in the media has been tremendous, and there has been a great response from schools. Everyone has been enjoying it, everyone has been watching it, and I am very sure that it will help to motivate the young players."
The U17s who competed in Croatia are one of nine national teams in the Faroe Islands, with five on the men’s and four on the women’s side. Apart from improving the country’s training facilities, the FSF have also been taking steps to educate more coaches and referees to help improve grassroots football.
The changes in infrastructure available to footballers in the Faroe Islands have been astonishing. Just over 30 years ago, the country did not have a single grass pitch. Now, the Faroes have almost two dozen third-generation artificial playing surfaces, which have been partly funded through UEFA’s HatTrick programme.
"Up until 1985, all our matches were played on sand pitches, but in order to gain international membership, all the pitches were renovated and artificial pitches were installed," said Hvidbro.
"This is a huge bonus for football. It has improved the quality of football, and increased the number of people taking part."
While the playing surfaces have improved, the elements still provide the Faroe Islands with numerous problems, given the country’s geographical location. The cold temperatures and strong winds can make playing difficult from October to March, while the archipelago does not yet have an indoor footballing centre.
HatTrick funding, along with grants from the local authorities, has seen floodlights installed to extend playing hours. Johansen is sure that this "will make a big impact."
Football is by far the most popular sport in the Faroes, with around 10 percent of the population playing the game. However, the FSF has big plans for the future and wants to increase participation levels to 15 percent, which would mean around 7,500 people actively playing football.
UEFA’s innovative GROW programme is aimed at increasing grassroots participation across the continent by giving advice to national associations about the various steps they can take in order to achieve this goal.
"As we are a small FA, it is fantastic to get help and inspiration to let the game 'GROW' in the Faroe Islands," Hvidbro explained. "This programme will teach us how to make money in a small market, and how to get more people involved in playing football."