"Go home and work even harder. The grassroots deserve it." That was the parting message from UEFA's grassroots ambassador, Per Ravn Omdal, as the ninth UEFA Grassroots Workshop came to a close.
The event in the Dutch coastal town of Noordwijk had opened with references to Nelson Mandela and Robben Island, where football in the prison yard had been "more than just a game" and had played a fundamental role in preserving mental and physical wellbeing. The workshop ended with references to the grassroots work currently being undertaken by the Football Association of Norway (NFF), in conjunction with the government, and in Vietnam, Mali and six countries in the Middle East. Grassroots football has undoubtedly become a global language.
The various speakers in Noordwijk underlined the importance of teamwork among the various stakeholders in developing the grassroots game and highlighting its social significance. The overall theme of the workshop staged in the Netherlands was Promotion and Progress – and this was illustrated by a wide array of sessions on the final day, which ranged from disability football in Turkey to reviews of extensive school projects currently being undertaken in Georgia and Serbia.
As UEFA's technical director Andy Roxburgh was quick to point out in the day's opening session: "Promotion is not an end product." He went on to analyse the importance of factors such as the use of star players as ambassadors for the grassroots game; the impact of awards, sponsor events and festivals; and the use of online technology to continue to raise the profile of the grassroots game. He also highlighted the value of campaigns and involvement by professional clubs in terms of reaching out into communities and stimulating a deep-rooted interest in the game.
This was a theme which continued into the final afternoon, when the host association, the Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB), was the first to take the stage. Wim van Zwam, a KNVB instructor currently in charge of the Netherlands' Under-19 side, teamed up with the head of AZ Alkmaar's youth academy, Aloys Wijnker, to demonstrate how national associations and clubs can work hand in hand to stimulate the grassroots game and develop the star players of the future.
The public's perception is often that clubs and national associations occupy different halves of the field. But, in Noordwijk, the hosts illustrated how grassroots football and player development can provide common ground for the two. As Van Zwam explained, cooperation is based on clearly defined responsibilities, the work done in regional academies and the top clubs' engagement in grassroots activities for boys and girls in the catchment areas surrounding them. As the KNVB's technical department manager, Piet Hubers, put it: "the aim is to see each other as partners in grassroots activities and create win-win situations."
This theme was rapidly transferred to the Arctic Circle when Stig-Ove Sandnes, managing director of Norwegian Premier Division side Tromsø IL, outlined the crucial contribution to community life made by grassroots football. "Schools and football clubs," he explained, "are the social focus points for everybody from toddlers to 70-year-olds. This is dovetailed into the development of talent for the professional clubs. At the moment, only five members of the Tromsø squad are not from the region."
The event in Noordwijk echoed the sentiments expressed by UEFA President Michel Platini about promoting the crucial links between the grassroots and professional levels and, as he said during the recent UEFA Congress, "imparting values to our children and grandchildren, guiding them through the most wonderful school of life and helping to make our society a little better." The ninth UEFA Grassroots Workshop encouraged all 53 member associations to share his enthusiasm for the grassroots of the game.
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