The Football Federation of Armenia, with help from UEFA, has been making great strides to ensure the country's young footballers have the best possible facilities in order to become stars of tomorrow.
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Armenia will stage one of the biggest football tournaments in the country's history when the UEFA European Under-19 Championship kicks off in the capital city Yerevan on Sunday. The event marks the host nation's first UEFA finals appearance since 2005, and the Football Federation of Armenia (FFA) is eager to ensure that qualification for UEFA competitions becomes a regular occurrence.
"This tournament will provide youngsters from across Armenia with the chance to see some of the brightest European talents, some of whom may go on to become global stars of the future," said FFA president Artur Vanetsyan. "We hope that, over the next couple of weeks, the children who watch the competition will become inspired to get involved in football."
As part of the same wish to give young people the best possible opportunities, the FFA is implementing a nationwide project to improve the country's footballing infrastructure. Accordingly, a total of ten full-sized pitches have been built in different regions of Armenia, with the first phase seeing four playing surfaces constructed in Vanadzor, Goris and Yerevan (with two).
The second part of the programme entailed the building of several pitches in Yerevan, including at the FFA's Football Academy, as well as full-sized ones in Sevan and Charentsavan. These are artificial pitches, bringing greater opportunities for young players to train, even during the winter, and so facilitating more practice sessions all year round.
Part of the funding for the initiative comes from UEFA's HatTrick assistance scheme to national associations. HatTrick itself is funded by revenues from the UEFA European Championship and by 2020 it will have ploughed more than €1.8bn back into the game since its introduction following UEFA EURO 2004.
The scheme has helped UEFA member associations build or renovate their infrastructure and invest in projects to develop the game at all levels, including grassroots football, women's football and elite youth player development.
The current HatTrick cycle, which runs until 2020, will lead to a total of €610.5m being distributed among UEFA's 55 federations over a four-year period. In each previous cycle, more than 70% of the funding was invested to upgrade infrastructure, such as pitches, stadiums and national training centres, in order to guarantee that everyone has access to football.
"HatTrick is a vitally important development programme, which shows that UEFA's commitment to European football runs a lot deeper than its major club and national team competitions," said UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin. "We consider growth and development an absolute prerequisite to maintain a sustainable and highly successful level of football for everyone."
Developing grassroots football
The FFA drive to enhance Armenia's infrastructure will dovetail nicely with its policy of striving to improve the grassroots set-up. The overall target is to get 80,000 children and adults involved in grassroots and amateur football.
The FFA has also been keen to promote grassroots projects within the various regions of the country. This work has received backing from UEFA's HatTrick programme, with the purpose of renovating or reconstructing existing old football stadiums and erecting new ones.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan – arguably the nation's best-ever player – is endorsing this grassroots work, acting as an ambassador for the programme, and it follows that he will be the ambassador for the U19 tournament too.
"It is vitally important we give boys and girls the opportunity to play football," said Arsenal attacking midfielder Mkhitaryan. "It is only through having a strong grassroots programme that we can envisage our teams for both men and women being able to compete with the best clubs and countries in Europe in the future. It is our duty to give young players optimal opportunities so they can achieve their dreams and become successful footballers in years to come."
UEFA has also been doing its bit to champion grassroots football. Through the UEFA Grassroots Charter – a quality mark focusing on the grassroots game – UEFA supports and stimulates the development of the grassroots at national level by setting standards and providing tailored assistance. In addition, each national association receives annual earmarked funding to continually nurture and improve its grassroots activities.
"Grassroots is football's lifeblood, because without healthy foundations our sport cannot flourish," said Aleksander Čeferin. "UEFA has always invested heavily in grassroots projects around Europe, and will continue to do so to ensure that football can be played by all, while the UEFA Grassroots Charter has been extremely important in taking football development to the next level."
UEFA has been quick to acknowledge Armenia's success in strengthening the game's grassroots. Senik Arakelyan was recognised for his work with children in the Shirak region with first prize in the category of Best Leader at the 2017 UEFA Grassroots Awards.
Arakelyan coached the Tribune grassroots club in the city of Gyumri where almost 1,000 children, teachers and coaches took part in events and sessions annually. There was a particular emphasis on girls and women's football, an area in which he has helped break down barriers.
"I started to develop women's football in 2013," explained Arakelyan. "It was hard to assemble a team in Gyumri because parents did not let their daughters join football clubs. This was the reason I decided to start with orphanage girls. I started training ten girls on a sand pitch. Gradually the amount of participants increased and then we succeeded in the 2015/16 season and became winners of the A and B groups in the Armenian Women's Championship.
"To spread awareness, we organise activities in schools and hold tournaments for girls during the whole year. We make it possible for several hundred girls to play football and we choose players from among these girls."
GROWing Armenian football
Hosting the UEFA European U19 Championships will be a historic event for Armenia, with matches taking place in three stadiums in Yerevan. To help the FFA prepare for it, a workshop was held earlier this year between Armenian football's governing body and the English Football Association under the aegis of the UEFA GROW initiative.
The workshop's aim was to share experiences between the two FAs and discuss communication plans for the tournament, in order to raise awareness of the finals as well as encourage more people throughout the country to play football.
The game's promotion and development – such a key ingredient for UEFA and its 55 member associations – lies at the very heart of UEFA GROW, a programme launched in 2015 with the goal of systematically and strategically 'growing' European football by inspiring and collaborating with the associations so as to ensure they can maximise their potential on and off the pitch.
"UEFA GROW is our central business development support programme to nurture football across Europe," said Zoran Laković, UEFA national associations director. "UEFA GROW offers tailor-made consultation services to our national associations in the areas most relevant for football organisations, from building a better image of football, to increasing revenue opportunities and getting more people to play our beautiful game.
"We are delighted to have had the opportunity to assist the FFA during its preparations for the tournament and we hope this event will increase football awareness and the sport's legacy in Armenia for many years to come."
As has been the case since 2018, UEFA GROW will continue to work with the FFA after the tournament is over by giving support and expertise in areas such as participation and strategic communications in order to make sure the future of football in Armenia is bright for generations to come.