Schools to save Welsh soccer

Call to draft staff to halt football skills drain to England. Nicola Porter reports

Teachers could be drafted in to halt a "skills drain" of talented young Welsh footballers to England. It comes as the poor performance of the national team is blamed on a lack of funding and competitive opportunities at the grassroots.

Ambitious plans to transform Welsh soccer at school level have been put to an on-going review by Assembly members, who will continue investigating in the autumn.

Football in the Community, an affiliated trust to the Football Association of Wales (FAW), wants to see centres of excellence run by enthusiastic school teachers developed in every Welsh local authority. But the children's commissioner for Wales claims a better goal would be the creation of more robust child-protection policies within the sport.

In evidence to the Assembly's culture, Welsh language and sport committee, which is carrying out the review, assistant commissioner Rhian Davies said complaints over a lack of risk assessment and of criminal record checks had been received by the office. She also said the focus should be on wider participation - not the cherry-picking of players believed to have star quality.

The committee started the review earlier this year, and has been looking at future priorities, funding, and the effectiveness of current structures for developing the sport. It has already taken evidence from the FAW and the Welsh Schools Football Association, as well as top Welsh teams - including Swansea. Its final report is due out in December.

Football in the Community claims Welsh soccer lags behind comparable-sized countries because of a lack of funding and competition. It says Wales could never be expected to compete on a level playing field with England.

However, non-league clubs in England benefit from a cash injection of pound;27 million from the Football Foundation for England that is not available in Wales.

Under Football in the Community's proposals, pressure would be placed on local authorities to release teachers from their classroom duties and accompany teams to games, with the proper funding. There are also calls to bring school football pitches up to the standards of those in European countries such as Slovakia, Belgium and Holland.

Ex-professional footballer Garry Williams, headteacher of Gwaunfarren primary school in Merthyr Tydfil, said: "Football at the grassroots in Wales is woefully underfunded and we need to be putting more in to get more out.

"Talent needs to be nurtured from schools and teachers are often the first to spot potential."

A National Assembly football forum was set up in 2002, which developed an accreditation scheme for schools. To date, 638 schools have signed up. But the Welsh Schools Football Association is still largely self-funded. And there is no external funding available for grassroots football, or for the under-18 national squad.

Climbing Higher, an Assembly government report aimed at raising the profile of sport among the young, says both primary and secondary schools should provide at least two curriculum hours a week for sports and PE activities, with secondaries expected to provide another extra-curricular hour.


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