European football's technical development community discussed the future of the game on Tuesday at the opening of UEFA's Grassroots Conference in Madrid.
Article top media content
The four-day conference is the first of its kind since 2019, reconnecting national associations from across Europe, as well as FIFA and UEFA's fellow continental confederations, after the COVID-19 pandemic in an exchange of experiences and best practices, setting out a shared vision of the future.
An action-packed opening day also saw a series of workshops, panel discussions and presentations, detailing some of the progress made to ensure the game's foundations remain as solid as ever.
Aleksander Čeferin, UEFA president:
"When we speak about football the first thing that comes to people's minds is professional football. It makes sense; the level of skill, tactical supremacy and superstars are the things that make this sport so great – however people should remember this is just the tip of the football pyramid that would never reach these heights without a firm base. When you take a long look at this base it is equally fascinating and emotional. This is where the game's roots are. I want to thank our member associations for taking good care of our game's future. Your devotion, energy and enthusiasm are incredible."
Evolving the UEFA Grassroots Charter
At the start of the day, UEFA's head of technical development Frank Ludolph provided a summary of recent developments and achievements before looking to the future with plans for a new Grassroots Charter, which will set the standard and lead opportunities for the continued improvement of the game across Europe.
All 55 UEFA member associations have signed up to the charter since its introduction in 2004, and the next edition, due to be launched in 2024, will raise standards still higher.
"We have come a long way and I am confident that the changes will have a positive effect on grassroots football in all its forms," Ludolph said. "Its success will depend not only on UEFA but largely on what will have been achieved at the respective national levels. There is enormous potential if the opportunities it presents are explored with high quality.
"Listening carefully to our national association representatives, I have the impression that we are on a good path and that, indeed, it all fits together well. It is very encouraging that all our efforts seem to have gone in the right direction."
Grassroots football's wider role
The sport's power as a vehicle for educational, social, sporting and personal development was a common theme throughout the day.
Dr Rainer Koch, UEFA Executive Committee member and former German Football Association (DFB) president, outlined the importance of the grassroots game in protecting the sport's positive image.
"The grassroots football movement is not only by far the biggest sports movement in European sport but also the basis, the heart and the good conscience of our sport," he said. "Without grassroots football – within not very long periods of time – football would become only an entertainment business and football would – in political eyes – quickly lose its reputation as the fundamental sports movement in our societies."
The view was reinforced by UEFA honorary member and grassroots ambassador Per Omdal, who reminded the audience of their obligations as grassroots leaders.
"Grassroots football is a big and serious responsibility," he said. "It's our duty to facilitate football for everybody and let them grow with us.
"We are teaching kids individual skills, mastering human relations and how to behave in life. We have an educational role and that illustrates football's enormous position as the most important society player that we have. We cannot relax. We have a way to go to create a real equal game, and we will do that together, UEFA and the national associations."
Omdal's compatriot, Lise Klaveness, president of the Norwegian Football Federation (NFF), reflected on her early experiences of the game, and how it has helped her career off the pitch.
"Football was my first love in life," she said. "Grassroots is where I found the lifelong passion for the game. I was obsessed with learning everything with the ball and took the ball to bed with me as a child.
"Playing in the national team, when we lost, I would cry and it took weeks to recover but those losses, and what football does for you, is that you learn to lose and go back again. To me that has been the most valuable lesson from football. You get resilience and the feeling of how a team can raise you up again when you feel isolated."
Women's EURO 2022: the grassroots legacy
This summer's UEFA Women's EURO 2022 was a huge success on the pitch and in the stands, but it will also inspire hundreds of thousands of girls and women to take up the game in the coming years.
Louise Gear, the English Football Association's (FA) head of development and colleague Stacey Mullock, national tournaments legacy manager, explained how the organisation's pre-tournament legacy work helped to drive interest and participation, setting them up for future success.
"Anyone working in women's football right now should feel immensely proud of the records that were broken and the showcase we put on this summer and we need to all be excited about what's to come," Gear said. "The connection between the elite game and grassroots football are completely seamless and we think that is key to our success."
As a result of hosting the tournament, the FA will provide opportunities for 120,000 more girls to play football in schools, with 20,000 more women taking part in the game for fun and a further 7,000 registering for grassroots clubs.
The benefits of strategic growth
A successful grassroots programme must be part of a national association's wider developmental strategy.
The UEFA strategic development support service uses fact-based research, market intelligence and industry experts to build strategic plans and developmental programmes to help our national associations develop the game at all levels.
The Georgian Football Federation's (GFF) Nikoloz Jgarkava explained how they developed their strategy and ensured a close link and alignment with their grassroots plan.
It all shows that the lifeblood of European football is in fine shape and can look forward to an even brighter future.