If football is the world’s universal language, the IFA Foundation wants to ensure every child in Northern Ireland has the opportunity to become fluent.
Ambitious plans were unveiled yesterday at Windsor Park that 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 with the game through primary, secondary and tertiary education.
By the end of the three-year plan, one of four stated key objectives is to increase participation levels in such numbers that 50,000 students are playing the game, 10,000 of whom will be girls and 2,500 students with disabilities.
For a small country with a playing base to match, the desire from a competitive stand-point to maximise those exposed to the game is apparent.
With two of Northern Ireland’s most prodigiously talented players, George Best and Keith Gillespie, having attended what would traditionally be viewed as ‘rugby schools’ in Grosvenor and Bangor Grammar respectively, there is a natural desire to see a greater footprint in such institutions to ensure that such potential does not end up lost to the game through a lack of opportunities.
Key to the success of the scheme, therefore, will be the goal of seeing 200 teachers or students to become qualified coaches by the end of the plan, with a further 100 trained as referees.
And while other sports, perhaps most obviously rugby and Gaelic Games, will worry about any growth of football’s already dominant popularity, the Fifa vice-president David Martin cites the plethora of benefits on offer to active children while noting that, with both Northern Ireland men’s and women’s teams having achieved significant milestones over the past six years, now is an ideal time for the implementation of such a scheme.
“Football among young people continues to grow and both the 2016 men’s Euros and 2022 women’s Euro finals qualifications can provide the inspiration for more children to take part,” he said.
“The involvement in schools has never been more important to provide a supportive environment for all children to receive the full benefits of the sport.
“From my time at the Irish FA, some 41 years, and in more recent times UEFA and FIFA, I have learnt 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 those are elements needed by all children to thrive.
“I believe every child must be given the opportunity to play. (Let’s) address budgets, engage school personnel, let’s help each other to make it happen.
“For me, I simply believe that it should be part of the curriculum. That’s a strong statement but it should be part of the curriculum.”
As is so often the case, it will be the development of the next Steven Davis or Rachel Furness that grabs the headlines but a large part of the strategy is built around different forms of the game.
Short-sided futsal, so popular on the continent and in South America, is one cited area for growth with an aim of setting up a new national futsal under18s schools competition and a home nations tournament.
Jason Browning, the Irish FA’s Disability Access Officer who has represented Northern Ireland in powerchair football, meanwhile cited the significance too of the inclusion of students with disabilities in the participation targets.
“I actually started out at a special educational needs school, and for me my introduction to sport, never mind football, was the Irish FA coming into the school and running sessions,” he said. “For me that was what gave me the idea that I could play in some capacity.
“It wasn’t ever obvious to me growing up as a kid that I could play football in any sort of way.
“To see that I could take part in a session, with kids that were a mix of all different kinds of disabilities, all kinds of equipment needed to help them play 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’ve had without that early introduction into sport and getting that taste for it. Without that start, 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 is personally moving for him to see such targets outlined in the strategy.
“I think it’s important for me as a disabled person to show other disabled people that it’s possible to do these things,” he added.
“I’ve played internationally in powerchair 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 blaze a trail for other disabled people to show that it’s possible.
“It’s great to see in the strategy that we’ve mentioned that there is a target for 2,500 disabled people within that.
“It’s vital that we target that. The impact it can have on a disabled person, the impact it’s had on me, is huge. Not just on the court or the pitch 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’s given me so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had without it.”