Estonia's Under-18 men's side were given a unique chance to play in a development tournament, supported by UEFA ASSIST, in the South Pacific where they learned valuable lessons both on and off the pitch.
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Twenty youngsters from Estonia enjoyed the trip of a lifetime to visit the small Pacific island of Vanuatu. Aside from having the rare opportunity to play against teams from different confederations, the Estonian Under-18 squad also had the chance to take away invaluable experiences, such as learning about different cultures and styles of football.
The U18 tournament, which took place in late August, featured New Caledonia, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu from the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) together with Estonia from UEFA and eventual winners India from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
The event was the first of its kind to be held in Oceania and was supported by UEFA ASSIST – a programme run by European football's governing body, which aims to support national associations and confederations across the globe, while increasing solidarity and facilitating football development worldwide.
"It was definitely a rare and exciting opportunity to play a tournament so far from home, on the opposite side of the planet, and I would like to thank the Estonian Football Association [EJL] for that," said Joonas Luts, who previously had represented his country at U17 level.
"We experienced a whole other football culture compared with Europe. The opposition played a very straightforward game: if you have the ball, run with it and try to keep possession. We look at football from another perspective and understand the game differently."
The Estonian players had to adjust to their new surroundings, with Vanuatu eight time zones ahead of the Baltic nation. The island archipelago is located some 2,000km north-east of the Australian city of Brisbane. While the Estonian youngsters managed to pick up important skills on the field, Luts added that the experience of playing and bonding with teams from different continents was just as vital for their footballing development.
"Playing cards with the Papua New Guinea boys and dining with other teams makes you realise that it does not matter where you come from or what your religion is – we are all youngsters who like football," Luts, who plays as a defensive midfielder, explained.
"Of course, everyone was there to play football and represent their country, but I will always remember New Caledonia's prayer song. The locals were also very friendly and welcomed us in the town and stadiums."
Given their geographical setting, it can be difficult for teams from the OFC to come up against sides from other confederations. The CEO of the Vanuatu Football Federation, Albert Manaroto, said that the initiative launched by UEFA ASSIST was a great opportunity for coaches and players to exchange ideas, while the feedback from the tournament was overwhelmingly positive.
"In the majority of cases in the Oceania region, official tournaments or qualifiers are the only opportunity for our youth teams to experience international competition. This amounts to roughly three games per category every two years," he said.
"In terms of football development this isn't really enough if we are aiming to reach the highest levels and so the introduction of this event, which I hope continues, has been important for regional development," Manaroto concluded.
India managed to win the inaugural title, but all participating coaches agreed that the experience itself far outweighed the importance of results. Estonia claimed third place.
"I was really pleased with the character that our players showed throughout the tournament. They learned a lot," said Estonian coach Andres Oper, who as a player won 134 caps and is the country's 38-goal all-time top scorer.
"In the end we have to accept that we finished third. I could see in the eyes of the players that they wanted to win, that was our goal. But there were many players who impressed me."