Slovenia hosted this week's UEFA Grassroots Workshop, and Football Association of Slovenia general secretary Aleš Zavrl is optimistic about the country's ambitious grassroots strategy.
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Slovenia has been in the spotlight this week as hosts of the latest UEFA Grassroots Workshop, in which the European body, its member associations and guest grassroots experts have been examining how to reinforce and promote the game's vital foundations.
The Football Association of Slovenia (NZS) highlighted its own grassroots visions and activities at the workshop, including practical training sessions involving young children, women and girl footballers. This small but vibrant football nation of just over two million people, independent since 1991, has big ideas and positive targets for the future, in particular in nurturing the growth of participation in football at all levels.
Football is the leading sport in Slovenia, whose national association has been a UEFA member since 1993. There are 287 clubs, just over 38,000 registered players, of which some 33,000 are amateur, youth and women/girl players, and around 1,400 coaches. Nine regional associations each deploy regional grassroots coordinators to look after this sector across the country.
Dedicated children's, schools' and youth football programmes are bearing fruit, alongside specific football projects for, among others, older adult players and marginal social groups, and the game is celebrated at countless festivals. All of these activities befit a key, encompassing NZS slogan: "I Like to Play Football" (Rad igram nogomet).
We asked NZS general secretary Aleš Zavrl for a general overview on how grassroots football is moving confidently forward in Slovenia …
How important has this workshop been for Slovenian football?
Aleš Zavrl: We have a four-year grassroots programme that began in 2014, and which continues until 2018, with strategic activities taking place and planned in this sector. We welcome the opportunity to learn from UEFA and experienced associations about their work, and it is obviously interesting for us to hear new ideas and best practices for further development. Our regional grassroots coordinators have been present at this workshop, and it has been a good learning experience for them, as they are the ones who are working daily in grassroots.
How popular is football in the country?
Zavrl: Figures show that football is the number one sport. This situation has come about through our participation at EURO 2000, and in the 2002 and 2010 World Cups – all great achievements for a small country like ours. It changed our football environment. More people became interested in football.
What are key issues in helping grassroots football evolve in Slovenia?
Zavrl: We have a very good coach education system, so we have enough coaches, and more young coaches are getting involved in the sector. We will probably focus on trying to recruit more volunteers as part of our future plans. And we are striving to improve our infrastructures, because with growing participation, we will need more pitches – especially full-sized training pitches.
How is the situation in women's and girls' football?
Zavrl: We are working hard in this sector. At present, we are trying to increase the number of registered women's players, and improve the image of the women's game. We organise various festivals and events to attract girls and show them that they can play football. We hope in particular to increase the number of women's and girl's teams within our clubs, as we do not have as many as we would wish for at present. We are also investing in three women's national teams [senior, U19 and U17], and the creation of a women's U17 national academy is just one area where we are promoting the development of female players.
Finally, are you optimistic about Slovenian grassroots football's future?
Zavrl: We have a very clear grassroots vision up to 2020 – focussing especially on increasing retention and participation in the game. In fact, our vision stretches as far as 2030 – by then, we hope to achieve a situation whereby everyone who wants to participate in football in Slovenia will have good conditions for doing so. I personally think that we are on the right track …