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Talking football: Christian Karembeu on youth football development in Oceania

France legend and tournament ambassador Christian Karembeu discusses the impact of a landmark UEFA and Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Under-15 football development tournament in New Zealand, providing new opportunities for young players across the region.

Christian Karembeu
Christian Karembeu UEFA via Getty Images

In April 2023, Christian Karembeu – a 1998 World Cup and EURO 2000 winner with France – journeyed to the Oceania Football Confederation’s Home of Football (Te Kahu O Kiwa) in Auckland, New Zealand, to witness the region’s best young footballers come together.

Karembeu grew up on the island of Lifou in New Caledonia, and relished the chance to support football development in Oceania as the UEFA tournament ambassador. "I would like to thank UEFA Assist for giving me the opportunity to come back to my region. It was a privilege to be there," said Karembeu. "The tournament was a dream come true. We need this kind of experience in Oceania. We need this kind of competition."

A team from Liechtenstein competed alongside Under-15 sides from the Cook Islands, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga and Vanuatu. Funded through the UEFA Assist programme, it was the first time the OFC had hosted an Under-15 development tournament of this kind.

Karembeu with Liechtenstein's Under-15 boys team
Karembeu with Liechtenstein's Under-15 boys teamOFC

New youth football development opportunities

For Karembeu, such competitions provide benefits that stretch beyond the pitch. "Players get to meet new people, and experience football outside their homeland," he said. "At that age, being able to open your mind, enrich yourself through travelling and be involved in a professional environment is hugely valuable.

"It’s not easy to leave your family, nor cope with the demands of an international tournament, but gaining this kind of experience will provide confidence for future travels abroad. It’s a great life lesson, and it’s amazing to see the young players singing their own anthems, playing for their jersey, for their country. It’s good to see the kids dreaming."

That holistic growth is a key principle of UEFA’s youth development tournaments. As well as valuable game time, players also joined psychology and nutrition educational workshops while in New Zealand. "It’s not only good for the players," added Karembeu. "Team staff also get logistics experience – accommodation, transport, timing. It’s a great experience for everyone."

Karembeu highlights how UEFA’s support was crucial in a region that historically has faced difficulties in hosting tournament football. "The big challenge for football in Oceania is transport, both the long distances and the cost. That’s why UEFA Assist’s work with the OFC is so valuable. Otherwise it’s difficult for young players from our region to play in tournaments like this," said Karembeu. "It’s not only funding; UEFA also provided materials and knowledge, and it’s also giving opportunities to coaches as well."

Discovering future football stars

Karembeu hopes that the joint initiative will act as a catalyst for future youth football development opportunities.

"The potential in the region is growing, and I hope the tournament becomes an annual one. From my experience, the more tournaments and the more consistency we have, the more we can nurture talent. I hope that from the tournament we can one day have a new Messi or Ronaldo."

"At that age, being able to open your mind, enrich yourself through travelling and be involved in a professional environment is hugely valuable."

Christian Karembeu

That football talent pathway is already evident. A number of players involved in the youth development tournament have since been invited to club trials, including in France.

"I’m very proud to see these players having these opportunities," said Karembeu. "I didn’t have that at their age; I was playing at school, with my friends on the street. We had some tournaments, but never at this level: not as well prepared or well organised. This is a dream come true for the kids in the region."

Karembeu is confident that potential will be fulfilled. "I know that players from the region are capable; they have the physicality, they have the skills, they have the potential. I told them to follow their dreams. I told them that everything is achievable when you are committed and when you work for it."

Oceania Football Confederation