The Slovak Football Association (SFZ) - proud hosts of next Monday's UEFA Congress - are doing outstanding work in developing football at all levels across the country, thanks to a variety of interesting initiatives.
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The footballing eyes of Europe will be on Bratislava on Monday as the city welcomes 54 national associations from across the continent. The Slovak capital is hosting the 42nd UEFA Congress, where updates on national team competitions and presidential reports are amongst the topics up for discussion.
Behind the scenes, it is a great opportunity for the national associations to use the time to catch-up and exchange views on how their latest development projects and various initiatives are progressing. When members from the various associations gather in Bratislava, they could do worse than speak to the Slovak Football Association (SFZ), which has being doing a fine job of trying to develop football amongst its population of almost 5.5 million.
“Slovakia is a small country and to compete with the best national associations and qualify for major competitions held by UEFA and FIFA in all age categories, means we have to work hard to make sure we do not miss any talented young footballers,” said Jozef Kliment, the general secretary of the SFZ.
“We are constantly trying to improve all areas of football, focusing on youth development and footballing infrastructure. Recently, we set up 12 football academies and now we are targeting schools and kindergartens in order to give every boy and girl the chance to play the sport.”
Producing the next Marek Hamšík or Martin Škrtel is not an easy task, however the SFZ’s new national training centre in Poprad is looking to do just that. Financed in part with money from UEFA’s HatTrick programme, which redistributes funds from the UEFA EURO to its member associations, the SFZ have built an excellent facility, which is used by Slovak national teams at all levels.
Scenically situated in the foothills of the Tatras Mountains, there is accommodation onsite as well as plenty of relaxation facilities for the players. The stadium itself holds in excess of 5,000 people, while the pitch has undersoil heating, which is geothermally heated from a nearby aqua park.
“I have great memories of playing matches for the U21 team at the Poprad stadium. The fans created a great atmosphere and really helped us to qualify for last year’s UEFA U21 EURO in Poland,” said Stanislav Lobotka, who is a rising star of Slovakian football and plays for RC Celta de Vigo.
“Poprad is a nice modern stadium and is an excellent base to prepare for national team games. Creating the national training centre in Poprad was a good idea as it is now home to all our youth teams, while it has also given those who live in the east of the country, a place to go and watch football.”
The centre in Poprad is playing its part in helping to improve Slovakia’s youth teams. Last summer, Slovakia’s U21 side narrowly missed out on qualification semi-finals at the UEFA U21 EURO, with two wins from their three group games. Now the SFZ are planning to expand the centre, with another training pitch and an indoor hall set to be built.
“The national training centre in Poprad has greatly improved the preparation conditions for all our youth and women’s national teams. We are grateful for the support we have received from the UEFA HatTrick programme because without its support, we simply would not have had the funds to complete the centre and reach our goals,” said Kliment.
“The national training centre in Poprad also gave us the chance to promote our national team’s matches in eastern part of our country where people love football, but have not always had the chance to see our top players.”
Getting more people to play the game is a challenge for the SFZ and Slovakia’s footballing governing body is taking steps to rectify this problem. In conjunction with UEFA, the SFZ has been implementing a programme since 2015, which will see the construction of 20 artificial pitches across the country. This will give children of all ages the opportunity to play the game on excellent surfaces all-year round.
Increasing participation levels is a key challenge and UEFA has been working with the SFZ though the UEFA GROW initiative. UEFA GROW supports national associations to develop across a number of key strategic areas – improving the image of the game, engaging with larger audiences, getting more people to play football and boosting revenues. UEFA’s overall aim is to ensure the member associations are able to maximise their full potential both on and off the pitch.
The SFZ are starting to see the fruits of their investments paying off, with a marked increase in the number of people playing football across the country. From 2015 until 2017, the federation has increased the number of registered players by 3% to 93,550. During the same period, the number of registered female players has increased by 13%.
The SFZ wants to introduce a concept that football is for the people and ensure that the sport is the universal symbol of sporting development in the country. In the long term, this will benefit wide sections of society, such as ensuring that people will have healthier lifestyles, while also of course assisting the Slovakian national teams.
Last year, the SFZ launched a new project called, ‘Let’s score goals together,’ which is aimed at increasing participation for girls and boys, including those with disabilities, who attend kindergartens. The aim of the initiative is to show the children that football is fun, as well as to try and create a long-lasting relationship with the sport.
“In 2017, a total of 46 kindergartens across the country, with 1,500 participating children, were involved in the project,” said Vladimir Luptak, the SFZ’s grassroots and participation manager. “By the end of 2021, we would like to have up to 350 kindergartens involved, which will see around 5,000 children from the ages of 5 to 6 taking part. From 2019, the project will also include after-school football activities in elementary schools, as well as a new format of football competitions for schools.”
According to Kliment, the SFZ is currently in the process of finalising its strategic plan for the next four years, with the aim of brining football closer to society and explaining that football does not just revolve around matches played by the Slovak national team.
“If we do not focus on our children, we will not have any future footballers,” said Kliment. “We are aware of this and we cannot wait any longer. We have received great support from UEFA and their experts, who have come to our country on a regular basis as part of the UEFA GROW programme. They have been really helpful in supporting us to work more efficiently and showing us how to focus on strategic areas.”
The SFZ has shown a real commitment to developing football both on and off the pitch in Slovakia. The organisation has had success in introducing new digital solutions. These include the introduction of platforms which give members of the public greater awareness of how they can get involved in playing and watching football.
“We are seeing a lot of growth because we have learnt as an organisation to target strategic groups in society and help them to get them involved in football,” said Kliment.
“We want to be an equal member of the UEFA football family and to play an important role in all areas of football development. This is the only way we can ensure that football continues to grow in the long run!”