Saturday 29 July 2023, 09:30

Tailoring Talent Development in Oceania

  • FIFA have concluded a six-day Knowledge Exchange workshop for Oceania member associations

  • Talent Development, Technical Leadership, women’s football development, educational and long-term planning were among multiple agenda topics

  • Theoretical sessions were blended with practical sessions during the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023™

Wellington/Te Whanganui-a-Tara, the capital of Aotearoa New Zealand was the setting for the latest FIFA Knowledge Exchange workshop between 23-28 July. Organised by FIFA’s Technical Division, the workshop brought together the Technical Director and Director of High Performance (or the person responsible for national youth teams) from across the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), along with their respective General Secretaries. Representatives from the OFC, as well as FIFA’s Regional Development Office for Oceania were also in attendance. Gathered together on the second floor of a hotel, it quickly became apparent that the workshop was not a global cut-and-paste. Rather, it has been constructed to discuss the unique characteristics of the region. Oceania is the smallest continent in land area, the second-least populated after Antarctica and travel between islands, let alone nations, presents unique challenges.

 Ulf Schott, FIFA Head of High Performance

Ulf Schott is FIFA’s Head of High Performance and explained the ethos of his team who led the diverse set of sessions over six days. “Success is different for everybody” he said. “What is the metric of success for each member association? The beauty of these workshops is that they are not supposed to come up with the answers on their own. We hold a mix of group and bilateral meetings and discuss everything in detail. “In a way, it’s like making a suit. We have a wide variety of materials and knowledge at our disposal. We listen to what each member wants, and then we tailor the approach accordingly.” With the workshop taking place just a 15-minute walk from the Wellington Regional Stadium - which is hosting nine matches during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023™ - the participants got to blend the theoretical sessions with a real-world view of how participating teams are staffed and prepare for games.

FIFA Knowledge Exchange Workshop (Technical Leadership & TDS), New Zealand - April Heinrichs presents

April Heinrichs is a FIFA High Performance Specialist. She also happens to be a FIFA Women’s World Cup winner in the inaugural addition in 1991 (with USA), before later coaching the national team to Olympic Gold in 2004. Oozing positivity, she started a presentation about women’s football with a message that generated a collective murmur in the room. “I think we can make Oceania more competitive. I think we can have an OFC country, including New Zealand, that qualifies for the FIFA U-17 World Cup more consistently. I believe that you can win a U-17 or U-20 World Cup and not just qualify for it. I know that’s a big statement. But I have already seen the progress of many smaller countries in women’s football around the world” she said. One of the key themes that emerged during the week was the need to identify a vision and/or a philosophy for each member association (MA). In many countries, the oval rugby ball is still the first one that many children pick up. In other countries such as the Cook Islands, the total population of the country only numbers 17,000, with just 11,000 based on the main island. “Some people call it DNA” said Heinrichs. “But I also want to focus on the planning process. We are developing people. This takes time. Your youth national teams are your pipeline…your rehearsal. If you can compete in a U-17 World Cup, those players move on to the U-20 World Cup and you’re more likely to have success at the U-20 World Cup. If you can keep some of the core of those players together for the movement up to the senior team, your senior team will have more success too.”

The main objective of FIFA’s Talent Development Scheme (TDS) is to help raise the standards of men’s and women’s national-team football. Each member association whose participation in the TDS operational lifecycle is approved will receive an annual contribution of USD 50,000 to cover associated operational costs. In addition, participating member associations may submit an application for funding under one or more of the annual bespoke FIFA talent programmes to support specific projects related to their strategic long-term development plan. The setting up of an academy or centre of excellence, being one such example. In order to progress such projects, it is therefore imperative that technical experts and the leadership of MAs are aligned in their planning. “One of the big questions we have been discussing is: how can we create a talent pathway so that children across Oceania have the chance to dream. And a dream that can come true” explained Ulf Schott.

FIFA Knowledge Exchange Workshop (Technical Leadership & TDS), New Zealand - workshop room view

“How do we create a plan? How do we bridge the gap between nations? Why are some more successful than others? We realised that by bringing technical staff and the decision makers in each MA together, we get people rowing in the same boat, in the same direction” he continued. “This is vitally important and can also extend to understanding how other stakeholders in a particular country – like the Ministries of Sport or Education, as well as other sporting bodies such as a National Olympic Committee – can pool resources, both human and financial. David Firisua is FIFA’s Regional Development Lead for Oceania. Hailing originally from the Solomon Islands, his role, and that of his team is to support all eleven FIFA MAs, providing support and guidance on the myriad of FIFA courses, progammes and funding resources available. Working in a ‘spirit of collaboration’, was a point he wholeheartedly concurred with. “I’m hoping that from this workshop there will not be just one or two takeaways, but literally tonnes” he said with a wide smile. “When the MAs attended the matches, they of course watched the action. But we also explained something else they should observe.

Sweden warm-up ahead of heir match against South Africa in Wellington

“Before the players come out of the changing room, a stream of administrators come out. Behind that, another level of support staff. Teams cannot play if they don’t have that in place. It’s the same analogy that we use here, in this room. “Behind these technicians and amazing football minds, there’s also another important role that needs to be played and this is where the operations area and the administration has to function well. Otherwise, we’re never going to see our MAs maximise their potential.” With FIFA increasing the number of participating teams at the FIFA World from 32 to 48 for 2026, the Women’s World Cup from 24 to 32 teams, and pledging to hold more youth competitions, could this spur the region on to bigger and better things? “Oh yes, 100%” answered Firisua unequivocally. “Everyone is hopeful. There’s a lot of work to be done, but workshops like this that bring so many experts, who are all passionate about football, makes me very hopeful about the future.”