School football in England

Although the FA is the body primarily responsible for driving forward grassroots football in England, UEFA plays an important role too. Under the banner of the UEFA Grassroots Charter, the governing body of European football is responsible for improving grassroots activities across all of its member associations.

While the effects of this involvement from UEFA might not be immediately apparent in British communities, many of the FA’s initiatives were originally inspired by the UEFA Grassroots Charter.

So what was the inspiration for this initiative to improve grassroots football across England? And is it working?

The history of the UEFA Grassroots Charter

Concerned about the state of children’s football, UEFA convened a special working group to tackle the problem in 1992. As a result, a document was created that placed the onus of youth development at grassroots level firmly at the door of member associations.

The vast majority of people involved in the process were in agreement that a solid foundation was needed for a successful elite level. As a result of this overwhelming consensus, UEFA issued a statement to all its members extolling the benefits of having a solid grassroots game in every country in Europe.

For the first time, there was a common European-wide policy on youth development and football in the community. And over the years that followed, member associations continued to work with one another for the long-term good of the game.

The UEFA Grassroots Workshop

In 1999, UEFA held its first ever Grassroots workshop. With the help of hosting associations, UEFA developed these workshops to help national associations share best practices and pick up practical advice from fellow members.

Taking place every two years, UEFA Grassroots Workshops are used to brief managers and coaches involved in grassroots football on the latest developments and best practices in the game. There is also an open forum in which member associations can get their questions answered and discuss how to progress football at the community level.

The last event was held in Slovenia in April 2016, and was attended by every UEFA member nation, all of the other continental federations and representatives from FIFA.

The UEFA Grassroots Charter is born

The UEFA Grassroots Charter was officially born in 2004 - formalising the framework and initiatives that had already been put into place. The main aim of the Charter is to improve grassroots football across the continent of Europe. The Charter formally recognises that football played in public parks, in schools, at home and in local clubs has a direct impact on the professional game.

There are now 54 signed-up members of the Charter, including the FA, SFA and FAW. All members must follow the guidelines set out in the Charter, which are mainly focused on the education of coaches, the retention of young players, player development and fair play.

It is a great achievement to have all four home nations - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - in the exclusive five-star member club. Five-star status is only given to those member nations that excel in every aspect of grassroots football. But what does that really mean?

Is the UEFA Grassroots Charter working?

Until very recently, the English FA’s record on promoting grassroots football was lamentable. Record numbers of young people were leaving the game, thousands of public pitches were virtually unplayable and community facilities were rotting.

While there have been some very welcome improvements in recent years, the FA’s five-star Grassroots Charter status was a little puzzling. The disconnect between England’s grassroots status in Europe and the reality on the ground couldn’t have been more stark during the years after the Charter was launched. And it begs the question: Is the UEFA Grassroots Charter anything more than a tick-box exercise?

Both the German and English associations have five-star status, but the difference between the two at grassroots level couldn’t be wider. There are still fewer than 700 high-quality artificial pitches in England… there are more than 3,700 in Germany. There are 22,000 B-licence coaches in Germany, but only around 9,600 in England. And perhaps most alarmingly, Spain (much smaller in terms of population than England) has 2,353 UEFA pro-licence holders compared with England’s disgracefully low 205.

For anyone looking for reasons why Germany and Spain have dominated international football for more than a decade, they need look no further than these statistics.

England’s five-star Grassroots Charter status is an achievement to be proud of. But let’s not kid ourselves; it is only a tiny part of what is required to catch up with some of our European neighbours.

Until the FA can build enough artificial pitches, train enough coaches and invest enough cash into community football projects, England’s grassroots fortunes will play second fiddle to those of the game’s true superpowers.