Teams from four confederations have competed in an Under-17 tournament in Istanbul, which is part of UEFA ASSIST's drive to promote football development across the globe.
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Teenagers from Angola, Cameroon, Nigeria, Paraguay and Senegal are preparing for what will be the biggest moment yet in their fledgling careers with the FIFA U-17 World Cup kicking off in just under a month's time in Brazil.
In order to ensure they are in optimum form for October's event, the five teams took part in a UEFA development tournament in Turkey, which was supported by UEFA ASSIST. The five countries were joined by the hosts Turkey, Scotland and Guatemala, with the competition taking place at the Turkish Football Federation’s academy in Istanbul from 20 to 26 September.
"We are delighted to have hosted this event and give those countries who have qualified for the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup the best possible opportunity to prepare for this tournament," said the Turkish Football Federation's first vice-president and UEFA Executive Committee member Servet Yardımcı.
"All the countries who were competing had the opportunity to test themselves against quality opponents, while it is also bringing together youngsters from different geographical locations and introducing them to new cultures, which will be an invaluable learning experience for them."
What is UEFA ASSIST?
Contributing to the development of football has long been one of UEFA's central objectives. Through its international assistance programme UEFA ASSIST, which responds to the needs of national associations and confederations across the globe, UEFA aims to increase solidarity and facilitate football development worldwide.
UEFA ASSIST thus provides support for member associations and confederations in four specific areas – capacity building (football and operations), development of youth football, supporting infrastructure projects and assisting UEFA's member associations to develop their own projects with federations outside of Europe.
"UEFA aims to work as much as possible in the development of football, and I feel it is our duty to assist other confederations and their member associations by sharing our experience, expertise and knowledge so they can reach their goals," said UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin. "We are looking forward to helping them grow football in their continents and also to participating in the development of the game outside Europe."
The development tournament is unique in that it brought countries from four different continents together, giving them opportunities to play against teams they would not usually face – as is the case at a major international tournament.
"Playing in this type of tournament gives us the opportunity to play against high-quality teams," said Paraguay's head coach Gustavo Morínigo. "It allows us to see, compete and experience just what it is like to play at the highest level at this age group."
"The chance to live and meet players from other teams is beneficial in every way and this tournament is essentially like a mini World Cup."
Angola, Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal all representing CAF; Paraguay belong to CONMEBOL, CONCACAF were represented by Guatemala and Scotland and Turkey from UEFA were the participants in the tournament.
Scotland may have not qualified for October’s event in Brazil, but head coach Billy Stark – who is also in charge of the country's U19 side – believes the tournament was a great experience, as it gave his side the chance to come up against players from different continents and new playing styles.
"We see it as a wonderful opportunity to test ourselves against teams who have qualified for the U17 World Cup, which is the ultimate test in international youth football," said Stark. "We are grateful to UEFA for the invitation to take part in this prestigious tournament, from which I am sure our players will take enormous benefit in their development as international players."
The tournament consisted of two groups of four teams played in a round-robin format. With half of the eight sides coming from CAF, the groups were designed to ensure a maximum of two African teams per pool to guarantee that they faced teams from different confederations. And with the emphasis on development rather than competitiveness, the tournament concluded following the culmination of the group stage.
"The UEFA ASSIST programme aims to share knowledge and best practice and to offer assistance to UEFA's sister confederations and their member associations," said UEFA's head of national associations' international relations Eva Pasquier.
"In this context, the tournament in Istanbul provided opportunities for talented young players to gain experience playing in a competitive environment, while also learning about different cultures which will broaden their footballing education on and off the pitch."
This was not the first time that Turkey has played host to a UEFA ASSIST U17 development tournament. Back in March, an event featuring 12 teams was held in Antalya, also with the aim of helping eight countries from CAF prepare for the final qualifying round in order to reach this year's U17 World Cup.
Cameroon are one of the teams who are returning to Turkey. They qualified impressively for the World Cup in Brazil, and head coach Thomas Libiih says March's development tournament was a big factor in helping them prepare for their qualification matches.
“I'm really happy about this competition because it helped us to become the champions of Africa as we were required to play against top teams and it gave us a true idea of the competition we will face at the World Cup," Libiih said. "I would like to thank UEFA, the Confederation of African Football and the Cameroon Football Federation."