UEFA Grassroots Conference: opportunity and enjoyment for all
Friday, September 16, 2022
The final day of UEFA's Grassroots Conference in Madrid focused on the importance of providing football opportunities for everybody who wants to be involved with the game.
Article top media content
Delegates from European football's technical development community also heard from former Republic of Ireland international Robbie Keane, who shared his early experiences of the game, and experts in disability football, futsal and the UEFA Playmakers programme, which provides a fun introduction to the sport for young girls.
"Football has given me everything. I was lucky enough to play 146 times for my national team and play all around the world, but without grassroots football and those coaches and volunteers taking time out of their schedule, I wouldn’t be here," Keane said.
"Football brings people together and it is a lesson for life. It has taught me so many lessons and values, respect for people and to understand different people and cultures."
The game's benefits in promoting a healthy lifestyle and social opportunities have been regularly referenced throughout the three-day conference, and it is UEFA's grassroots mission to ensure that everybody, everywhere can play the game in a safe, positive and enjoyable environment.
Promoting disability football
That means catering for the needs of approximately 135 million people in Europe living with a disability.
As part of its new Grassroots Football Charter, European football's governing body will introduce new disability football provisions to ensure national associations are developing programmes to create a welcoming environment for all players.
"Disability football is really important because everybody should be given the opportunity to reach their potential," explained UEFA grassroots panel member and disability football expert Jeff Davies. "Fifteen percent of European people live with disability and many of those will want to be involved in football – not just as a player but as a coach, administrator or official – and we should be able to give people a lifelong association with the game.
"It's important that UEFA leads on this because we are the football experts. We may not have technical expertise in disability, but we work with partners who do, and it means the world's number one game can give more people so many life skills, a feeling of belonging and an opportunity to achieve. We can lead the way for sport across the world."
Paul McNeill of the Scottish Football Association shared the secrets of their Para-Football programme, winner of the Best Disability Initiative at the 2022 UEFA Grassroots Awards.
"My coach made me understand that those white lines on a football pitch are white lines of safety. They change your life and we never forget that," he said. "The more we talk about Scottish Para-Football, the more people believe in what we are doing. We are making a difference to society, and football is the best thing ever to engage people!"
Spanish international blind footballer Javier Álvaro Ruiz also spoke to the 200 attendees, explaining how he is able to take part in the game and how that benefits his life off the pitch.
"If we have clear instructions and someone in charge of safety, someone who guides players, then we can all play," he explained. "Sport has many benefits and there are so many things you can transfer to your daily life. For people with a serious disability like me, that’s important. Only a few people can reach professional sport, but it's important that everyone can enjoy his or her life and I'm sure we can do that through football."
Attracting girls to football with UEFA Playmakers
The UEFA Playmakers programme is a sports activity like no other, incorporating imaginative play and Disney storytelling into an introductory course to help girls fall in love with football. It provides a fun, safe introduction to the game for five-to-eight-year-old girls, developing fundamental movement and life skills while offering an innovative environment to support a healthy, active lifestyle.
Since its launch in 2020, the scheme has been a huge success with 44 of UEFA's member associations now offering a Playmakers programme, which has introduced thousands of girls, and new coaches, to the game.
Incredibly, more than 90% of participants in the scheme have reported that they enjoyed the sessions, learnt new skills and wanted to tell their friends about it. In Madrid, delegates discussed how to ensure that once girls have completed the course, there are suitable links between schools and clubs to ensure that they can stay involved with the game and continue enjoying the benefits of activity.
How futsal is raising its standards
Michael Skubala, a former England futsal player and head coach, who is now working in football as Leeds United's Under-21 head coach, showcased the benefits of adding futsal into a ‘twin-tracking’ development programme alongside football.
Skubala detailed how futsal players get more regular touches of the ball during games, as well as experiencing more opportunities to attack and defend on a smaller pitch, therefore developing their technical skills more quickly.
It is a theory supported by Keane, who added: "I loved playing futsal and grew up playing in the hall with friends. It can improve your touch, your fitness and your sharpness. The more touches you get, the more in control you are of the ball and you will naturally be a much better player.
"My advice to children and young players is to practise every day as much as you can. Play as much as you can, get touches of the ball and if you love it, go for it. But practise, practise, practise as much as you can."
Reflecting and consolidating for future success
Thursday's session brought the curtain down on what has been a hugely positive and beneficial experience for participants from across Europe.
As well as providing a forum for learning about new initiatives and best practice, it has also offered crucial opportunities for the exchange of ideas and the chance to further develop UEFA's continent-wide network of grassroots experts.
It has allowed the community to celebrate recent success and growth despite the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as setting out important plans for the future, such as UEFA's new Grassroots Charter that will further raise the standard of the European game. The club development framework was also introduced, which will aid associations in improving grassroots clubs, which form the environment for players to thrive and act as such an important part of the wider community.
As the conference comes to a close, UEFA already looks forward to its next grassroots event. Next week, president Aleksander Čeferin will join former stars, including Keane, at a special Football in Schools event alongside children in Hvar, Croatia.
That event will kick off UEFA Grassroots Week, which runs in parallel with the European Week of Sport, and will see more focus on the foundations of the game.