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UEFA development tournaments: preparing the stars of tomorrow

Friendly competitions introducing young players to international action since 2012.

England's Phil Foden and Norway's Erling Haaland competing at a UEFA Under-16 development tournament
England's Phil Foden and Norway's Erling Haaland competing at a UEFA Under-16 development tournament

Erling Haaland. Matthijs De Ligt. Phil Foden. Gavi. And now Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.

There has been no shortage of breakthrough acts on European football's elite stages in recent years, players whose talent and performances belie their tender age and immediately elevate them to stardom.

What these five, and countless others have in common, is that rather than being an overnight sensation, their talents have been spotted during UEFA's under-16 youth development tournaments, which help to introduce young players to international football and smooth the pathway into the senior game.

UEFA launched its development tournaments in 2012 as a way of offering elite male and female youth players the opportunity to enjoy intense international matches and learn about overseas travel as part of a squad. This is a particularly important step as it comes a year before formal European competition begins with UEFA's Under-17 EURO qualifiers and final tournament.

Matthijs De Ligt (back right) in Under-16 action with his Netherlands team-mates
Matthijs De Ligt (back right) in Under-16 action with his Netherlands team-mates

Zvonimir Boban, UEFA technical director and chief of football

"The UEFA development tournaments are a platform which give the young, talented players of each national association, boys and girls, the opportunity to gain international experience in a non-competitive environment but with high-intensity matches.

"Playing under the national team shirt is always something special and these events are designed to optimise the team preparation before the Under-17 EURO qualifiers, where the competition and the results count."

Ten years of success

Over the past 10 years, 217 tournaments (each involving four teams) have been staged across Europe and beyond, providing the platform for the likes of Haaland and co. to hone their talents, but there are also other benefits.

Specific rules are also in place to emphasise the development of the players rather the competition itself. For instance, there is a minimum playing time for each player and in case of a draw, there is a penalty shootout, a pressurised exercise that the players might face at Under-17 level.

Spain and USA meet in a girls' Under-16 development tournament match
Spain and USA meet in a girls' Under-16 development tournament matchJon Super for The FA

Development coaches can test their players against new systems and styles of football, with match results secondary to the experience. The four participating team coaches also meet with technical experts to exchange ideas and best practices.

Young referees gain international experience, easing their path into the senior game, and there is also opportunity for some of Europe's smaller national associations to gain experience of event and tournament organisation.

Since 2019, 21 Under-15 boys' tournaments have also been played, with eight girls' tournaments following from 2022.

Raising standards around the world with UEFA Assist

Argentina and Germany meet in a UEFA Assist tournament
Argentina and Germany meet in a UEFA Assist tournament

Since 2019, UEFA development tournaments have also been helping players not just in Europe, but all over the world, thanks to the involvement of the UEFA Assist programme.

Assist, which celebrates five years of activity this week, shares the experience and know-how of UEFA and its member associations beyond Europe, but in this context, provides a two-way benefit with Europe's young players able to broaden their horizons and travel outside the continent for competition – perfect preparation for the Under-17 World Cups and the variety of playing styles encountered across the world, and an enriching experience on a personal level for everybody involved.

Over the past three years, 23 Under-16 boys' and four Under-16 girls' teams from around the world have competed against European opposition thanks to Assist's involvement, with a further 19 boys' and 10 girls' teams approved to participate but unable to do so due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The scheme is set to continue into 2023, with Under-15 as well as Under-16 teams set to take part.