Wednesday 29 June 2022, 05:00

FIFA Forward helping Puerto Rico plan for the future

  • Puerto Rico has just organised its first boys’ U-13, U-15 and U-17 competitions

  • Made possible thanks to financial and technical support from the FIFA Forward Programme

  • Ultimate goal is to nurture talent through elite competitions

Not so very long ago, the creation of a national youth league comprising different age groups in Puerto Rico looked like nothing more than a dream. Determined to make it happen, however, and making the most of the global shutdown caused by the pandemic, the Puerto Rican Football Association (FPF) got down to work and drew up what turned out to be a vital short- and medium-term plan. The first step the national association took to make their plan a reality was to seek financial and technical support from the FIFA Forward Programme, with a view to setting up national boys’ U-13, U-15 and U-17 leagues. Those competitions kicked off on 26 September 2021 and, after nine months of intense action, came to an end on 5 June, with the three inaugural champions being crowned at Puerto Rico’s top three stadiums: the Velodromo Panamericano in Coamo, the Estadio Residencial Quintana in San Juan, and the Estadio Centroamericano in Mayaguez.

“Having spent several years working on the rollout of the FIFA Forward Development Programme in the region, we are delighted that the FPF has made use of this funding to set up a project designed to develop youth leagues across the country,” said Jose Rodriguez, the head of FIFA’s Regional Development Office in Panama. He added: “After all the problems caused by the pandemic, the project has helped relaunch football in the country and focus efforts on enhancing the development of the game in Puerto Rico.”

A brighter future

The objective has always been clear: to develop talented young players through elite competition. To make that happen, the FPF set about increasing the amount of competitive football available to the island’s young players, all with the idea of detecting the best of them and ultimately preparing them to play for the senior national team. And so, last September the Liga Juvenil Puerto Rico came into existence. Comprising three age groups, it saw nine teams competing in an U-13 league, nine in an U-15 competition and ten in an U-17 league. “It’s a major step forward for national youth team football,” said FPF President Ivan Rivera. “It’s a way for us to show parents and players how elite youth football should be developed. It’s given young players the chance to play at the country’s best stadiums and to play all over the island too.”

Puerto Rico Youth League in action

Some, 633 players took part in the three leagues, with teams playing a minimum of 18 matches and the finalists as many as 23. Finals day took place on 5 June, with Edusoccer crowned U-13 champions, Escuela de Fútbol de Cayey Taurinos taking the honours in the U-15 league, and Bairoa emerging victorious in the U-17 competition. As well as the players, the new leagues have also brought benefits for coaches and coaching staff, who are now involved in preparing matches, travelling with their teams and organising training camps, all of which allows them to sharpen their management skills in an elite environment. “The Liga Juvenil is here to stay,” added Rivera. “It’s been a success, with more than 100 games played, and it’s helped develop youth football by adding to the number of games youngsters already play in their respective regional leagues.”

A week after the end of the league season, the players from the top three teams in each league attended an official Puerto Rico national team match, where they saw for themselves where the path to sporting excellence may one day take them. An experience they will never forget, the day also gave them all the motivation they need to continue working on their skills and pursue their dreams of pulling on the national team jersey. “The leagues came to a spectacular end with the nine teams taking part in an awards ceremony at the Concacaf Nations League game against British Virgin Islands on 12 June,” said FPF Secretary General Gabriel Ortiz. “The boys picked up their awards that day and had an unforgettable experience with the national team.”