From 29 September to 1 October, FIFA played host to a number of coaching instructors who came to attend the Grassroots seminar organised by the governing body's Education and Technical Skills department. This training seminar for instructors marks the launch of a new FIFA development scheme entitled the Grassroots programme, which aims at promoting football among six to 12-year-olds and is based on an innovative new vision.
For over three decades now, FIFA has been proposing and implementing development programmes for its member associations, designed to further the game at a national and international level. Education and training for those involved in the game has always been the key focus of the various programmes, particularly via the FUTURO courses which are now into their third generation. However, training programmes like these are aimed more at the world's elite, with a view to providing better coaches, young players, referees and clubs.
With the Grassroots programme, FIFA has a different target audience in mind and on a totally different scale. The target, as its name suggests, is football among its youngest players, six to 12-year-olds throughout the world who are discovering and learning about the game. The Grassroots programme is designed to help member associations, in conjunction with their respective governments, to provide football coaching for children based on their school situation and their specific circumstances, encourage them to play the game on a regular basis and to get as much enjoyment from it as possible. Football is a sport which is imbued with strong educational and social values, which are an ideal complement to a child's education.
The philosophy, training methods and teaching material used in the programme were presented to some 40 people from around the world who came to Zurich for a Grassroots seminar for instructors. The theory behind the programme was soon put into practice with a gathering featuring 70 kids on 30 September, enabling the instructors who were present to familiarise themselves with how to organise a Grassroots festival. This included workshops and smaller-sided matches, one of the most important elements of the programme.
Throughout the seminar, the instructors were constantly exchanging ideas, impressions and questions about the programme, while all of them shared an infectious enthusiasm for Grassroots. "We're getting back to basics. What you learn at that age stays with you for the rest of your life," said Dato Yap Nyim Keong, a Malaysian instructor who also works for the FIFA development office in Kuala Lumpur.
"As an instructor, this gives you extra motivation to work at grassroots level. I was in Japan with some children who didn't speak English and I don't speak Japanese," he continued. "But within five minutes they had all picked up the exercises I was showing them and were doing them no problem at all!"
Even in federations where football amongst youngsters is already well developed, the Grassroots programme will bring about change. "In Belgium, Grassroots exists already, but the federation didn't maintain enough of a relationship with the ministries for young people or health for the project to really take off," explains Marc Marchal.
"The important thing with grassroots football is to give the game over to the kids. This FIFA programme is going to contribute a lot to football. We need to take away the idea of performance as far as kids are concerned and let them get back to enjoying the game."
"It's an enormous challenge, but the programme is an essential one, particularly for women's football," says Jaqueline Shipanga, coach of the Namibia women's team and a FIFA instructor, before going on to underline the important social implications of the programme. "The earlier we get girls integrated into football, the more success they will have. Boys will have to start appreciating their qualities and getting used to girls playing football. Grassroots will make the world a healthier place as well. Football keeps you fit and Grassroots will do that the world over".
All the participants came away with the feeling of belonging to a crucial mission whose benefits go way beyond a mere football programme. "Grassroots is not just about football, it's about helping kids grow up," concluded FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter.
Pilot projects have already been carried out by football associations in China PR, Tahiti, Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago with a great deal of success. They also highlighted that fact that FIFA Grassroots instructors have to adapt their coaching to fit the country they are in, and that since it puts a smile back on kids' faces when they are playing, the Grassroots programme is perhaps the most important contribution that FIFA can make to the development of football.
If children do not play and enjoy their football, the top end of the game will cease to exist. Kids of all ages, sizes, abilities and of both sexes, with their differences and qualities, are what make sure that the game can progress, and they are the ones who will be playing at the highest level in the future.
And they are the ones who should have the final word. At the end of the day, an instructor asked the kids he had been working with whether they had enjoyed themselves. The reply was an unqualified "Yes!" - justification in itself for launching this exceptional programme.