The 10th UEFA Grassroots Workshop in Oslo featured 24 presentations, two practical sessions and periods devoted to discussions on how UEFA's 53 member associations can work together to further develop the grassroots game. But one of the central themes running through the many topics was the relationship between the bottom and top of the footballing pyramid.
Bodo Menze, long-serving head of youth football at FC Schalke 04, outlined the German club's commitment from Under-9 level right the way up to the elite. "We pay great attention to academic education as well as the football," he stressed, "and we focus on communicating standards and values."
Menze also underlined some of the social activities conducted far away from the limelight, under the banner of the Schalke Hilft (Schalke Helps) foundation. This offers direct assistance to socially disadvantaged families; helps sensorially impaired youngsters; and addresses, in practical ways involving football, key social issues such as exclusion, discrimination and violence.
Tarje Jacobsen and Terje Myrseth, director and grassroots manager respectively at Molde FK, champions of Norway in the last two seasons, explained how a professional club based in a town of only 26,000 can contribute to the local community.
Hellvar Thoresen, voted Norway's player of the century, then told of how he is gaining enormous job satisfaction at Oslo-based IL Heming, a multi-sport club of 5,000 members where the emphasis is, as he put it, "on stimulating self-confidence and motivation and on encouraging boys and girls to be themselves, to be honest and to belong".
However, the links between the base and the peak of the pyramid were most graphically exposed in a session entitled 'From grassroots to the top' on the final day of the workshop. It featured Fernando Hierro, Stig Inge Bjørnebye and UEFA's chief technical officer Ioan Lupescu – three leading former players for Spain, Norway and Romania respectively, who amassed 239 international appearances between them.
Hierro and Bjørnebye reflected on moments during their teens when each had to listen to a message which, in the opinion of both, should never be delivered by a coach to a grassroots footballer: "You're not going to make it." The latter recalled: "I seriously thought about walking away from the sport – and I think a lot of youngsters would be just as discouraged as I was.
"I talked it over with my father for three days and finally made the decision to forget comfort zones and fight my way back," Bjørnebye continued. "I came out of that stronger as a person and as a player, and three seasons later I was in the national team."
Hierro, three times a UEFA Champions League winner under Jupp Heynckes and Vicente del Bosque at Real Madrid CF, stressed that in parts of Europe where 'volunteer cultures' cannot rival the parameters prevalent in the Nordic countries, investment in the grassroots by the top professional clubs takes on even greater relevance. "Structures in Spain," he said, "depend on totally professional standards – especially of coaching – right at the bottom of the pyramid."
Despite their different backgrounds, all three underscored the importance of grassroots football in terms of transmitting social values and human development. "Most of the things I have learned in my life have come through football," Lupescu said. "That's why it's so important for coaches and leaders to transmit positive messages and passion for the game. Grassroots football is where you discover your qualities as a person – and it's important not to forget your origins, even if you are fortunate enough to go all the way to the top."
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