The UEFA Assist programme, aimed at nurturing football development outside of Europe, recently helped two central Asian nations compete in a youth tournament in Belarus.
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The International Youth Tournament has become something of a tradition in Belarus, with the 16th edition of the tournament recently held in Minsk.
Organised by the Football Federation of Belarus (ABFF), the event for Under-17 national sides attracted six teams from across Europe – from Iceland to Israel – as well as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
UEFA's important Assist
The ABFF was able to invite the two central Asian countries to participate thanks to the support of the UEFA Assist programme. Although the initiative mainly assists associations outside of Europe through sharing of knowledge and best practices, it also allows UEFA's member associations to develop their own projects with federations in different confederations.
"UEFA aims to work as much as possible in the development of football, and I feel it is our duty to assist other confederations and their member associations by sharing our experience, expertise and knowledge so they can reach their goals," said UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin.
"We are looking forward to helping them grow football in their continents and also to participating in the development of the game outside Europe."
Players experiencing different cultures
The invitations to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan gave their respective U17 teams the perfect opportunity to play against countries from a different continent. However, this was also the case for a number of the European sides – a chance they greatly appreciated.
"It's a different culture and a good experience for the players; we can always play Finland, Sweden or Norway whose culture is similar to ours," explained David Snorri Jonasson, the head coach of Iceland's U17 team.
"This tournament is very useful for the players as they can test their skills against teams from different cultures. It is very important for us, as most of the players from Iceland will aim to play abroad in the future."
Preparing for competition
The tournament also had an extra benefit for some of the European sides. In March, the elite round of UEFA European Under-17 Championship qualifying will take place as 15 teams aim to book their place at this summer’s finals in Estonia. Israel are one and their head coach Saleh Khassarmi said this event provided his side with the perfect opportunity to hone their skills.
"Such tournaments help to prepare the team and make certain conclusions," said Khassarmi, whose side lost to Belgium in the third-place play-off. "Most of the players in my team will be selected for the elite round games, but there might be some changes too."
Belarus will also compete in the elite round in March and will be full of confidence going into those matches having won the International Youth Tournament, beating Tajikistan on penalties.
However, ABFF President Uladzimir Bazanau was just delighted that the countries competing were all able to take home several positives from the tournament, which is important for the further development of the players.
"It is great that such teams as Finland and Belgium participated in this tournament for the tenth time," said Bazanau. "I would like to thank Belarus and Tajikistan for a great final, and I would like to say thank you to our partners, the Development Bank of the Republic of Belarus and the UEFA Assist programme."