FIFA’s 'Grassroots' programme is a spearhead and key element of the governing body’s football development efforts, aimed at “getting as many people as possible involved in the game, instilling human values and, above all, bringing enjoyment to all simply by letting them take part”. A seminar followed by a Grassroots festival took place on 19, 20 and 21 June at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich.
The seminar held on 19 June was dedicated to professionals, and more specifically, Grassroots instructors. The goal of the day was to share experiences, learn about new material, enhance the programme’s original concept and discuss instructors’ roles and responsibilities.
A Grassroots event is generally made up of a four-day course for coaches/educators, followed by a festival geared towards children (boys and girls between six and 12), organised by the country’s Football Association. FIFA contributes by providing instructors, financial support for the courses and festival, and kits and equipment for the event.
In Zurich, FIFA Development Officers brought the 40 Grassroots instructors from all four corners of the globe up to date on the approach, content, structure, support given by FIFA and learning materials involved in Grassroots projects.
“After four years of Grassroots, it was time to carry out an assessment of the content and improvements that needed to be made,” said Jurg Nepfer, in charge of training courses at FIFA’s Development division. "We also had to address the challenges we face, which we’ve done. One of the most important of which is the following-up of projects."
“We need to take things to the next level by giving a sense of responsibility to the member associations benefitting from the programme, so that they continue with the Grassroots programme that we’ve started,” he added.
“There have been constructive discussions between participants about things to improve or change in the programme, and we shared our own experiences,” said Swiss attendee Sam Schweingruber. "It’s an important first step. I actually think we need to hold this kind of gathering for instructors more often."
The dimension of his words became evident later, when projects in Mauritius, Colombia, St. Kitts and Nevis, United Arab Emirates, Greenland, New Caledonia and Cambodia, each one with its own footballing culture, tradition and history, were presented by participating instructors.
“I was in Palestine not that long ago,” explained Moroccan participant Jamal Eddine Lahrache. “It’s obviously a region where emotions run high. We staged three Grassroots events in three different areas, adapting the courses accordingly each time. The warm welcome that we received everywhere, be it from the FA, leagues or participants, just proves how much this type of programme is needed."
Schweingruber, who has lived in Cambodia for nine years and has been a Grasssroots instructor since 2009, is equally enthusiastic. “With something like Grassroots, you’re not just affecting individuals; you’re changing an entire culture,” he said.
“In Cambodia, it was unthinkable at the outset for girls to take part in the Grassroots programme. We managed to push that through, and now it’s seen as perfectly normal. And that is bound to help in boosting the confidence of young Cambodian women, and making them feel more important,” he continued.
Grassroots activities also have long-term goals, such as initiating and consolidating a cooperative relationship between the member association and the authorities in charge of school football within the country.
“We obviously collaborate closely with the country’s FA, but also with the Ministry of Education and non-governmental organisations. That’s fundamental if you want to establish these programmes in schools,” said Schweingruber.
Lahrache, who works all over North Africa and the Middle East, points out that the overall goal is to expand the base of the football pyramid. “It’s therefore crucial to promote these activities to Ministries of Sport and Education as well as non-governmental organisations, so that they implement programmes based on Grassroots,” he explained.
On 20 June, it was time for the festival. Sixteen or so children, split into two groups, one from the MIES school in Versoix and the other from FC Zurich’s Letzikids club, played all afternoon on the FIFA pitches. The festival consists of a mix of small-sided matches and fun exercises aimed at improving technique.
An essential aspect of the festival is that an overall winner is not declared. Each team plays the same number of matches, interspersed with exercises. “By the end of the day, all of the participants have had the chance to play the same number of games, and leave feeling positive about the experience,” explained Nepfer.
The following day saw the instructors gather for a final session, during which they undertook a constructive review of proceedings, established working groups and responsibilities, and determine the next steps to take.
“These programmes are very important for FIFA because they introduce children to the basic values of football: discipline, fair play and respect,” said FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, who had stopped by to watch the children knock the ball around. "At the same time, we pay careful attention to the special features and footballing cultures of each country, a principle that we have upheld since 1975, when we began our development work across the world.
And who better than one of the children playing on the FIFA pitches in Zurich to sum up the general feeling about Grassroots? Yannick from Versoix spoke for all present when he said, “The exercises and small matches are brilliant, but what was even better was meeting kids from another club and another region. We maybe didn’t speak the same language, but we used our hands to communicate. And in any case, you don’t need words in football!”