If football is the universal language of the world, the IFA Foundation wants to ensure that every child in Northern Ireland has the opportunity to speak fluently.
Ambitious plans were unveiled at Windsor Park yesterday which form the basis of a ‘schools football strategy 2022-25’ with the aim of establishing a system where every member of the population has the opportunity to become and stay involved in the game through primary, secondary and higher education.
By the end of the three-year plan, one of the four key stated goals is to increase participation levels in numbers such that 50,000 students are playing the game, including 10,000 girls and 2,500 students with disabilities.
For a small country with an equivalent gambling base, the desire from a competitive perspective to maximize those exposed to gambling is obvious.
With two of Northern Ireland’s most prodigiously talented players, George Best and Keith Gillespie, having attended what would traditionally be considered ‘rugby schools’ at Grosvenor and Bangor Grammar respectively, there is a natural desire to see a greater footprint in these institutions to ensure that such potential is not lost to the game through lack of opportunity.
Key to the success of the program will therefore be the goal of seeing 200 teachers or students become qualified coaches by the end of the plan, with another 100 trained as referees.
And while other sports, perhaps most obviously rugby and Gaelic games, will worry about any growth in football’s already mainstream popularity, Fifa vice-president David Martin cites the plethora of benefits offered to active kids whilst noting that with both Northern Ireland men’s sports and women’s teams having achieved significant milestones over the last six years, now is the perfect time to implement such a program.
“Youth football continues to grow and qualifying for Men’s Euro 2016 and Women’s Euro 2022 can inspire more children to participate,” he said.
“Involvement in schools has never been more important in providing a supportive environment for all children to receive the full benefits of sport.
“In my time at the Irish FA, some 41 years old, and more recently at UEFA and FIFA, I have learned that football is a source of happiness and well-being for many young people. .
“Structure, exercise and social interaction are part of the package and are necessary elements for all children to thrive.
“I believe that every child should have the opportunity to play. (Let’s tackle) budgets, hire school staff, help each other get there.
“For me, I just believe it should be part of the program. It’s a strong statement, but it should be part of the program.
As is so often the case, it will be the development of the next Steven Davis or Rachel Furness that will make the headlines but much of the strategy is built around different forms of play.
Short futsal, so popular on the continent and in South America, is an area of growth cited with the aim of setting up a new national futsal competition for under-18 schools and a home nations tournament.
Jason Browning, the Irish FA’s disability access manager who has represented Northern Ireland in wheelchair football, also spoke about the importance of including students with disabilities in participation targets.
“I actually started at a specialist school, and for me my introduction to the sport, let alone football, was the Irish FA coming into the school and running sessions,” he said. “For me, that’s what gave me the idea that I could play to a certain extent.
“It was never obvious to me as a kid that I could play football any way I wanted.
“To see that I could be in a session, with kids who were a mix of all sorts of disabilities, all sorts of equipment needed to help them get into the sport, it gave me a taste that I could do it. and that was huge for me.
“I don’t think I would have had the sporting career that I had without this early introduction to the sport and without having taken a liking to it. Without that beginning, I wouldn’t be the same person I am now. It was really important, that early start. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be me. »
And Browning admits it’s personally moving for him to see such goals defined in the strategy.
“I think it’s important for me, as a person with a disability, to show other people with disabilities that it’s possible to do these things,” he added.
“I’ve played internationally in wheelchair football for Northern Ireland, I coach my own club, I work at the Irish FA so my whole life revolves around football. I want to pave the way for other people with disabilities to show that it is possible.
“It’s great to see in the strategy that we mentioned that there is a target of 2,500 people with disabilities in this framework.
“It is vital that we target this. The impact it can have on someone with a disability, the impact it has had on me, is huge. Not just on the pitch or in the field, but in terms of what it does for you personally.
“I wouldn’t have the confidence to sit here and talk without football, I wouldn’t have that ability. It gave me so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had without it.