The UEFA women's football development programme (WFDP) has helped to set the wheels in motion for an innovative new project in Finland.
Running since 2011, the Player-Manager scheme has been helping to take the women's game forward with former top players drawing on their vast experience to work on the training and development of young players. Finnish internationals Laura Österberg Kalmari, capped 130 times, and Anne Mäkinen and Jessica Julin, who both made 116 appearances, were retiring and plans were made to ensure their massive know-how did not vanish from Finnish women's football.
Fully funded by the UEFA HatTrick scheme which assists Europe's national associations, the Player-Manager initiative provided a perfect possibility to keep the trio involved on the pitch. They were assigned roles in the women's national teams, placing them between the players and the coaches as an extra component within the team structure.
"The idea was to find a way to use the experience of three top players for the benefit of Finnish football," said national coach Andrée Jeglertz. "We wanted to keep them within football as an example to younger players."
Mäkinen was the first former player to become part of the Finland women's national team set-up, while Österberg Kalmari and Julin joined the project at a later stage and also worked with youth national sides. "This has been for the good of both sides," Jeglertz explained. "The Player-Managers have acted as contacts with the players, and as a link between them and the coaching staff. With their experience they have been valuable to the players and they have stayed within football. The players have valued them really highly.'
The role of a Player-Manager is intentionally flexible; everyone can modify it to what suits them best. "It does not have to be so precisely defined. The Player-Manager is present and already that is a help," Jeglertz reflected.
"We had a young player who was thinking of retiring, but after a lengthy talk with Jessica Julin she had second thoughts. It is not easy for a coach to know what the players are thinking and how they feel. The Player-Manager can put herself in the player's position much more easily."
The initiative has been a success, and Jeglertz thinks it would never have started without the support of the UEFA HatTrick programme. "It would not have been possible. We are still a very small country with many challenges, and UEFA provided a fantastic opportunity to start something like this."
Jeglertz emphasised that the Player-Manager scheme must now become a process. "We must take the next step and have more than just three players involved. Several more experienced players will certainly retire within the next few years. They have vast experience and knowledge, and we need to keep them active in football."
The first three Player-Managers have been pioneers; in the future the function of former players can be practically anything within football. In addition, participation does not necessarily have to come after decades of playing at a high level. For example, there are players who are forced to retire early because of injury, who are also included in the association's plans.
"We are currently working on how to use these players in Finnish football, perhaps tutoring younger players in districts and regions," said Jeglertz. "We are now turning a project into a process, which will continue and develop over the years to come."
How does Jeglertz envisage the situation within the next couple of years? "We hope to have a programme which gives all retiring national team and club players the chance to continue in football." An admirable undertaking looks set to bring major benefits to women's football in Finland.
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