Tailor-made assistance via the elite youth academy programme benefits young players and coaches in Finland, Israel and Northern Ireland.
Few people would have expected Israel to be one of the finalists at last summer’s men’s Under-19 EURO in Slovakia, but their success did not come by chance.
Since 2019, the Israel Football Association has been one of three national associations to receive bespoke UEFA support in the running and development of its own elite youth academy, creating a professional environment in which young players can reach their true potential.
The programme, which is also operating in Finland and Northern Ireland, helps to enhance the associations’ technical programmes and raise the standards of coaching for top young players, without neglecting their traditional education.
Clear signs of success
Rewind to July 2022, and the sight of Israel’s Under-19s facing England in the final was evidence that the scheme is working.
Ofir Haim, Israel’s Under-19 coach, was delighted to see the progress made despite the eventual 3-1 defeat to England in Trnava. His team’s performances even attracted congratulatory calls from both the country’s prime minister and president.
“I was very excited. I didn’t believe that in my whole life, the prime minister would call me, and suddenly I got the call,” he said.
“It means that we’ve done something great. It was a historic moment. We played excellent football; it was amazing. Watching as a coach from the side, I couldn’t believe this was my team; I saw the best football this team has ever played and I’m very proud.”
Such moments hint at success for the elite youth academy programme, but its aims do not stop with improved short-term tournament performance; there are also targets for the professionalisation of academy structures and long-term increases in elite players turning pro.
How UEFA sets the standard
The programme focuses on talented players in the Under-14, Under-15 and Under-16 age groups, forging strong links with local schools and clubs to deliver elite-level technical and tactical training without compromising on players’ traditional education. They also have access to psychological and nutritional advice, with dedicated welfare officers part of each coaching team.
In Israel, academy scholars attend a school with 2,000 other students, UEFA funding helping to create residential quarters for the 70 players and new offices and meeting rooms for coaching staff.
“We at UEFA insist that the players have the right balance,” says head of elite youth player development, Jean-François Domergue. “It is important that the academy manages standard education at school and football, because not all of them will become professionals. We want to create good people with well-rounded attributes, and it’s crucial that the kids also respect this aspect.”
Northern Ireland’s increased opportunities
The lack of a professional club structure previously hindered player development in Northern Ireland, with youngsters required to travel from all over the country three times a week to receive top-level training, leading to a high dropout rate.
Offering a residential solution with access to professional coaching has transformed the association’s outlook, and by qualifying for this season’s UEFA European Under-17 and Under-19 Championship elite rounds, Northern Ireland have achieved a historic first, with 20 national-academy-based players (13 U-17s, 7 U-19s) featuring within those squads.
Coach Gerard Lyttle believes the elite youth academy programme has been a key factor in this recent success.
“The establishment of an elite youth academy for Northern Ireland has allowed us to address many of the major challenges we currently face,” he says. “It does this by reducing travel demands, increasing contact time, improving preparation of players and improving the school/football balance which will lead to better academic and sporting performance.”
Domergue, a French UEFA EURO ’84 winner, together with his team, pays regular visits to Israel and supervising the other two academies, (Roger Meichtry following Finland and Olivier Doglia in Northern Ireland) observing coaching and classroom sessions and setting bespoke targets for the following period. He recently spent four days embedded within the Israeli set-up.
“We can see that in each nation, they are working very well and that each of the academies has a clear strategy,” he explains. “I have watched a lot of sessions and I see excellent, professional coaching in line with our vision of the game. As part of the UEFA strategy, it is key to support as much as we can European football development.”
Success stories across Europe
Finland, Israel and Northern Ireland are the second group of associations to go through the elite youth academy process with UEFA. The first group to sample the scheme, which began in the 2014/15 season, have also seen excellent ongoing progress at both youth and senior levels.
North Macedonia’s senior team reached their first-ever major tournament finals at UEFA EURO 2020, while Armenia enjoyed successive UEFA Nations League promotions in 2019 and 2021.
Georgia, which has seen its national government continue funding for the construction of five regional academies across the country, will co-host (with Romania) the UEFA European Under-21 Championship finals later this year. Belarus also took part in this project with some significative improvement in their elite youth player development.
Each association continues to receive financial support through local partnerships and UEFA’s HatTrick programme – the primary means by which European football’s governing body channels income from the senior European Championship back into football development.