Since 2014, UEFA's elite youth development programme has been instrumental in helping to foster talented young players in four pilot associations - Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and FYR Macedonia - where the work is bearing encouraging fruit.
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UEFA's mission statement puts a clear emphasis on the development of football throughout Europe – and this includes giving constant impetus to the coaching and fostering of young footballers.
A shining example of this drive for excellence and quality has seen four European national associations – Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and FYR Macedonia – receive precious support from UEFA since 2014 in nurturing promising young talent.
The quartet have been the first beneficiaries of an ambitious UEFA elite youth development programme geared to bringing through young players who could be creating headlines for their country’s clubs and national teams down the line. The moment is at hand to start reviewing results and planning for the future.
The four associations in question were chosen as pilots in the programme – which has now been developed to include all 55 UEFA member associations – and structures and visions have been put in place that they hope will lead to the flourishing of numerous talents in their countries in the years to come.
Each of the four FAs has been receiving important UEFA funding each season since 2014/15. The funds are helping to cover the costs of a football academy for U14/U15 players, set up technical programmes and enhance standards of training.
UEFA has been making members of its technical team – experienced coaches and technical experts – available to visit the associations several times each year to give crucial advice and guidance not only from a technical point of view, but also in terms of education and management.
Coaches and instructors have received invaluable expert training designed to raise their standards and, in turn, motivate them in their development work.
With the help of UEFA, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and FYR Macedonia have established national academy set-ups which focus on strong links between the association, schools and clubs. This means that a clear link exists between football training and education. The specific programmes have been geared to each association’s needs and requirements.
Alongside top-quality technical, tactical and fitness training – the latter also comprises key elements such as nutrition and hygiene – youngsters are also being taught essential life skills in terms of conduct, attitude and responsibility.
The work is already bearing fruit. The associations are achieving better results in UEFA’s qualifying competitions, in particular the UEFA European Under-17 Championship.
The number of young players that have made the step up into the national U16 and U17 teams is also impressive – for example, around three-quarters of the academy intake in Armenia are now performing at national U17 level.
The time is coming to look ahead. Following the completion of the pilot project next year, the associations are being asked by UEFA to continue the good work and maintain the confidence generated over the past four years.
UEFA is already providing guidance and encouragement for the future as far as association priorities, relevant business plans, new funding and player education are concerned. The message is for the momentum to keep gathering pace…
UEFA’s head of football development, former France international Jean-François Domergue, is heartened by the results achieved so far with the pilot FAs.
“The projects have been a resounding success for the associations,” he says, “and they have shown UEFA the way forward in this area – we must continue to help sustain the associations’ development, because they have grown as a result.”
“It is also important to see the social and educational benefits that are happening, given the number of youngsters passing through the academies.”
The four pilot associations themselves are unanimous in underlining how UEFA’s help has assisted them in mapping out effective youth development plans and infrastructures.
"One of the positive aspects of the programme is that the best players get to train and play together."
Vardan Minasyan, Football Federation of Armenia technical director
"Our coaches have received a lot of support in terms of seminars and knowledge-sharing. This is very important for further development."
Artur Azaryan, Football Federation of Armenia head of football department
"We used to form the youth teams at a later stage when the players were studying at state schools. Today, we can have four teams of different age groups at our academy. This is all possible thanks to this project."
Viktor Goncharenko, Football Federation of Belarus deputy technical director
"It gives our coaches and players very big motivation, and I’m sure this academy will help a lot in developing Georgian football."
David Mujiri, Georgian Football Federation general secretary
"Children get high-quality training, excellent learning and nutrition, as well as decent accommodation – consequently, their capacity to develop further is very much improved."
Zarko Ignjatovski, Football Federation of Macedonia football sector manager
The final word goes to Jean-François Domergue, who insists on the significance of this admirable project for the overall benefit of the game. "We want to help our associations produce better players," he reflects, "because in doing do, we are investing in the future of European football as a whole…."