UEFA had not even been founded when some well-advised officials first understood the need to put the training of young players at the heart of footballing activities.
It was 65 years ago when teams representing eight national associations (Austria, Belgium, England, Italy, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Wales) competed in the first International Youth Tournament in London from 15 to 17 April 1948. Although England won this inaugural edition, the results were not the most important aspect as far as the organisers were concerned: in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was primarily an opportunity to give young footballers a chance to experience international competition under the banner of friendship.
"The tournament was conceived as a meeting place for young people playing football, as a contribution to friendship, and it corresponded with the ideas of a young generation which started to calculate with greater distances and dimensions," explained Karl Zimmermann, then chairman of the UEFA Youth Committee, in the book published in 1973 by UEFA to mark the 25th anniversary of the tournament.
In the same book, the UEFA President at the time, Gustav Wiederkehr, expressed his wholehearted agreement: "The friendly matches in the tournament must stress what is common to all Europeans, must mitigate contradictions and must form ties of friendship beyond national borders."
He had previously noted that: "During the period of 'apprenticeship', the stress in football should first of all be put on playfulness. Wit and imagination should be displayed freely [...] It must be possible for our young footballers to measure their strengths as openly as possible, so that each can be, at the same time, master and pupil of his colleague. Thus, from the earliest age, the art of playing is characterised by national particularities and enriched through international diversity."
However, it was not long before a more competitive spirit came to the fore in this Under-18 tournament, which FIFA asked the recently founded UEFA to organise from 1957 onwards. Over the years, the event steadily grew until, with more than 30 participants, a qualification phase was introduced. At its meeting in Zurich in March 1980, the UEFA Executive Committee recognised these developments by relaunching the tournament as the UEFA European Under-18 Championship.
In parallel, at the request of the national associations at the conference of presidents and general secretaries in June 1979, the Executive Committee decided to launch a competition for U16s.
Since their inception, the two men's youth competitions have constantly contributed to the development of young footballers in our continent. The U16 showpiece, after becoming the European Under-16 Tournament, in turn acquired European Championship status for the 1998/99 season. The age categories were then altered to U17 and U19 from the 2001/02 campaign. In the meantime, the blossoming of women's football had resulted in the creation of the UEFA European Women's Under-18 Championship in 1997/98 (U19 from 2001/02). The full set of UEFA youth competitions was completed with the launch of the UEFA European Women's Under-17 Championship in 2007/08.
In recent times – apart from amendments to the format of certain final rounds – the European youth football landscape has seen two major changes. The first, which has not yet been implemented but which will be introduced on a trial basis over a two-season period, mainly concerns the competitive aspect: this is the UEFA Youth League, a club competition for U19 teams.
The other innovation is aimed more at a return to the original spirit of the International Youth Tournament – the desire to give young footballers an additional, rewarding experience that can broaden their education. As such, new youth development tournaments were introduced in 2012 on a pilot basis. Having received the backing of the presidents and general secretaries of the UEFA member associations at their strategy meeting in Limassol in September 2011, the idea was implemented under the auspices of the HatTrick programme in spring 2012.
This year, all the member associations were invited to participate in these activities. The category chosen for both girls and boys was U16, thought to be a crucial period in youngsters' development. In these tournaments, results are of secondary importance and fade into insignificance compared with the possibility that they give the players to progress, an opportunity that is also extended to referees and even referee observers.
This season's programme therefore features 13 development tournaments, the first in Portugal in February and the last in Poland in August.
In principle, each tournament involves the U16 girls and boys teams of four national associations. Each side contains 20 players and nine substitutions are allowed in each match. A UEFA technical observer attends every tournament to talk to national youth coaches about subjects relevant to this particular age group. The U16 events also have the benefit of preparing young players for the UEFA European Under-17 Championships.
Given the scarcity of international friendly tournaments for women's teams in this age category, between April and June this year there will be seven development tournaments for U17 girls organised by UEFA.
This is an edited version of a piece that originally appeared in UEFA publication UEFA•direct
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