After two lost seasons, the revitalised Women's Under-17 EURO is back with a historic first for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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It is three long seasons since UEFA’s men’s and women’s Under-17 and Under-19 EURO trophies were last held aloft.
The 2019/20 competitions were abandoned due to the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020/21 was unable to begin at all. But, at last, the wait is over: Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first UEFA tournament signals a return to normality.
The lifelong memories lost by young players who would have been involved in the cancelled tournaments cannot be replaced, but for the teams here, years of hard work will gain its reward. It is not just the matches themselves; there are also the cultural and educational experiences, meeting people from other nations and benefitting from the anti-doping and integrity education sessions organised by UEFA.
Nadine Kessler, UEFA chief of women’s football, was twice a Women’s Under-19 EURO winner with Germany before going on to enjoy a glittering senior career at both domestic and international level. She has fond memories of playing age-group football and is thrilled UEFA’s youth finals are up and running again.
"I loved it - international competitions at this stage in your life are crucial because that’s when you realise what you must do to make a career out of football. It’s a time when you mature.
"You get good international competitive sporting experience, but you also have to juggle life as well – maybe with school and other issues when you are going from being a teenager to becoming an adult. I loved meeting people from other countries and seeing what’s out there. For me, it was an eye opener."
Getting back to action
UEFA’s evolving Return to Play protocol has been central to getting the ball rolling again, lowering the risk as far as possible by applying the latest medical advice and best practices. The security of young players was always a crucial part of organising these events, and the Return to Play protocols extended this to COVID-19 protection.
It has allowed the resumption of events crucial to UEFA’s mission, and part of the €2.4m payments currently made to each national association under the EURO-funded HatTrick programme goes towards the cost of entering UEFA’s youth events. This presents different challenges to each nation, and recognising that led to a radical change in how women’s youth qualifying was played on the return of the Women's Under-17 and Women's Under-19 competitions.
Maxwell Scherrer, UEFA chief of football development, speaking ahead of the return of European youth competitions
"It is fantastic that we can look forward to four international youth tournaments this summer. These are huge moments in the development of young players, where they can compete against other talents from across Europe, understanding different ways of playing and what it is to be away from home at a tournament for an extended time. It is a proud moment to represent your country at any level and I am sure these players will be looking forward to the experience.
"It is important that UEFA provides these opportunities for both male and female players, helping raise the level of elite football across Europe and ensuring every player has the chance to reach their potential."
A new format to benefit everyone
Nations were split into two tiered Leagues, like in the UEFA Nations League, and compete for promotion and relegation in the autumn and spring, with the League A group winners in round 2 reaching the finals. This guarantees teams, including the host nation who also take part, five or six competitive matches per season against similarly ranked sides and is aimed at encouraging young women to keep playing the game.
"The format change was part of our Time For Action women’s football strategy," Kessler adds. "It shows that UEFA is taking care of more than just the very top level. Investment is going into getting more girls to play, but also in providing them with a pathway through our youth competitions to then make it as a professional.
"This is the first time for this Nations League- style system in our youth competitions, which allows for more matches for all and also more competitive matches. It’s hoped that this can help give young players the experience they might have missed out on in the past two years."
Boban's excitement for Sarajevo's stage to shine
UEFA chief of football Zvonimir Boban will be at this tournament and the former Croatia star and UEFA Champions League winner with AC Milan can’t wait for the action to begin.
"Sarajevo is an incredible city with a special place in my heart," he said. "I have many friends there and always enjoy coming for a visit. Therefore, I am delighted to be here on such a beautiful occasion and I’m confident that the tournament will be a massive success.
"I am very excited that youth tournaments are finally back after a long and forced break. I cannot even imagine how excited and eager our young players must be to compete on this prestigious stage again. UEFA is devoted to youth development; it is the very essence of our existence."