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"Pure gold" is an appropriate way to describe the UEFA international development tournaments as they continue to give vital competitive experience to teenage boy and girl footballers throughout Europe.
A series of tournaments are being staged under UEFA's auspices this spring and summer, as part of the governing body's campaign to advance football across the continent and in response to feedback received from UEFA's member national associations.
The most recent tournaments have proved a resounding success. Boys and girls U16 teams from Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Moldova served up some quality football in Romania, delighting UEFA technical observer and member of the UEFA Development and Technical Assistance Committee, Miodrag Belodedici.
"I really don't know if there is something better than such a tournament," he said. "In fact, for youngsters that age, having development tournaments each year is pure gold, so the importance of these tournaments is obvious. During these tournaments, you can compare yourself with players from other countries, socialise and get used to the international level and competitions."
The U16 category has been selected as UEFA feels it is a pivotal stage in a player's development pathway to the elite level. Such matches, as well as the preparation they entail, are crucial in facilitating the process of player development.
Meanwhile, at the Las Rozas training centre in Spain, the host country were joined by France, Italy and Czech Republic for a tournament that lived up to its promise. Once again, UEFA's technical experts were impressed by what they saw.
"It is the beginning of training development for young players," said UEFA Jira Panel member Ginés Meléndez. "The players progress when they compete – and these tournaments are the best way to progress because they play against the best players from other countries. They compete and live together for a period, which helps the players in their human education. This initiative is a great success ahead of the U17 [qualifying] tournaments."
"Organising development tournaments for U16 European female national teams is just fantastic," added Vanessa Martínez, technical observer for the girls' tournament. "This initiative promotes the further development of talented young players, coaches and referees. For players, it provides a superb opportunity to gain experience at international level at an earlier age, which is of crucial value to their development pathway towards elite football.
"For coaches, it offers an additional competitive setting to test more players [with up to nine substitutions allowed per match] and experiment with players' positions and tactics according to the opposition – knowing that player development rather than the result is the focus. For referees, it provides an excellent educational and learning environment involving international teams, but in a less stressful situation, which will positively influence their path towards elite refereeing."
Thus young players are learning in tournament conditions all over the continent. In other recent events, Wales hosted the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Northern Ireland at boys and girls U16 level, while two boys-only events took place in Poland (featuring Poland, Denmark, Norway and Lithuania) and Bulgaria (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Turkey and Georgia).
Appropriately, the final word goes to UEFA Executive Committee member Micea Sandu, a keen witness to the action in Romania. "These tournaments are more than welcome because they are meant for the first age category involved in competitions at European and world level," he reflected.
"It is a time when technical and tactical skills are being formed and the character as well, which are the main ingredients to create a future top player. I am glad women's football also develops apace, and for me it is a real pleasure to attend these youth matches. I believe the tournament in Romania has been a successful one. All the participants returned home with nice memories from a very useful experience."
Further UEFA U16 development events for boys and girls are planned in the coming months:
29 April–8 May: Latvia
6–15 May: Republic of Ireland
20–29 May: Belarus
20–29 May: Hungary
15–22 June: Albania
20–24 August: Poland (girls only)
Additional UEFA development tournaments are also being played at women's U17 level:
24–27 April: Moldova
8–12 May: Lithuania
12–15 May: Israel
13–17 May: FYROM
19–23 June: Estonia
21–25 June: Serbia
26–29 June: Ukraine
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