The U19 EURO finals are nearing their conclusion in Georgia, but exciting times lie ahead, with the country's ambitious football federation determined to make football more popular than ever.
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The UEFA European Under-19 Championship has brought the footballing spotlight back to Georgia, with the country hosting its biggest footballing event since the UEFA Super Cup in August 2015.
Although the hosts were unable to make the semi-finals, the tournament has confirmed there is an appetite for football in Georgia, with over 25,000 spectators turning up to watch the home team's final group-stage game against the Czech Republic.
The Georgian Football Federation (GFF) are looking to build on this success, and central to their plans of developing the game at all levels on and off the pitch is UEFA GROW, an innovative programme which helps national associations to nurture football. GFF vice-president Nikoloz Jgarkava admits that the UEFA programme came about at "just the right time" for the organisation.
"UEFA GROW brought together our senior staff to review four key pillars – the image of football in Georgia, our digital engagement with the Georgian football family, increasing participation in grassroots football in Georgia, and increasing commercial revenues for the GFF," Jgarkava explained.
Following on from this, Tbilisi played host to a major UEFA GROW summit in March, which attracted delegates from 13 other national associations as well as the GFF, and was devised to mark a new dawn for football development in Eastern Europe.
The GFF has been one of the development project's biggest supporters. "The GFF was delighted to host such an important UEFA GROW summit, as we really believe that we must all get more people to play the game," GFF president Levan Kobiashvili said. "This summit offered us the chance to showcase the grassroots programmes we have introduced over the last year, and show how well they are progressing."
The GFF's president and the deputy prime minister of Georgia, Kakha Kaladze, are both former footballers, who know better than most how the country can develop its footballing infrastructure and increase participation levels.
The GFF believes it can work closely with the government to achieve mutual goals, such as improving the population's health by making football more accessible. The federation has set itself an impressive goal of trying to increase participation levels by 20% over the next four years, and doubling the number of women playing the game.
"We need young people to believe that success should be measured by the number of people involved in football, rather than by the results of our national team alone," said Jgarkava. "We are very focused on increasing grassroots participation, although the big issue facing us here is infrastructure. We need more and better facilities in order to really achieve the development of football in Georgia."
GFF statistics show that only 33% of the adult population has ever played football, while only 17% of adults and children are active players. Around half of those questioned said a lack of time was the reason not playing football.
The statistics for women are even more worrying. Only 11% have ever played football, with only 3% of the female population currently involved. A lack of media coverage, no role models and not enough opportunities to play were some of the reasons that women gave for not participating.
The GFF has taken these problems on board and, with the assistance of UEFA GROW and the UEFA Grassroots Charter, it is doing its best to get more people involved.
"UEFA is delighted to working in such a collaborative fashion with our friends at the GFF through UEFA GROW," said UEFA's national associations director Zoran Laković. "We are looking forward to supporting many years of sustainable football development in Georgia."
Research has shown that football is the most followed sport in Georgia, and the GFF is aiming to use top players, male and female, to create a series of fun coaching tutorials, while setting up a series of roadshows in major towns and cities to get young boys and girls playing.
While growing the game at grassroots level is of the utmost importance, the GFF has been taking steps to improve the infrastructure available for the country's most talented youngsters.
With support from UEFA's HatTrick programme, the GFF is already building a new national football academy, which will help prepare around 100 youngsters in four different age categories (U14, U15, U16 and U17) to play for the country's national teams. Those selected to train and study at the academy will have all their costs covered by the GFF.
In order to improve grassroots football across all sectors, the federation aims to enlist more coaches and encouraging more people to give up their spare time to help grow the game.
"For the first time ever, we have amateur football being played in every region of Georgia, and we have implemented the 'Football in Schools' project [offering free football lessons for primary school children in over 1,000 schools across Georgia]," Jgarkava mentioned. "Additionally, 1,059 phyisical education teachers took a D-license football coaching course, and a census project is under way, with data being gathered from all around Georgia."
Football in Georgia has plenty of potential, and the GFF has put a strong structure in place to ensure that the game continues to develop. With assistance from UEFA GROW, the GFF will be hoping that football in the country continues to flourish, and that Georgia participating at UEFA finals tournaments becomes a regular occurrence.