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The complexity of setting up good Youth Football Tournaments

Publisert: 08.09.2016

Organizing good youth football tournaments has characteristics which deviate from tournaments for children and adult.
In this article we will describe in some detail what these characteristics are and how  youth football tournaments can be set up.

The concept of Multi-Level Tournaments is very well suited for youth football and will be described on basis of a specific example.

The article can be used both as an inspiration for organisors and for teams who are considering which tournaments to participate in next summer.

Main focus and frame conditions

By dividing the number of participating teams by the number of available fields, you get a ratio that tells a lot about the tournament main focus.

In some tournaments this “teams per field” ratio can be 10 or even lower. These are tournaments where the participating teams mainly use the time to play football. Flint Cup has a ratio of 8. The teams therefor spend the time between matches primarily for resting and nutritional intake. In such tournaments it will therefore not be necessary to facilitate other "non-football" activities.

In the big tournaments that many teams attend, this ratio is much higher. Norway Cup, Dana Cup and Gothia Cup all have well over 20 teams per available field. This means that players use a relatively small part of their time playing football. In such cases, the tournament must focus on providing supplementary activities to activate the teams between matches.

Teams in the process of selecting which tournament to participate in, need to decide what is most important: Playing football or supplementary social activities.

There is no obvious answer to this. In some clubs these big tournaments are used to promote social integration in the group, e.g. in the transition phase between children and youth football activities. In such situations it can be a good idea to select tournaments where the number of matches is more limited.

In any case, it’s easy to see that some of the big tournaments have succeeded better that others in facilitating attractive non-football supplementary activities … 

What you may also notice is that the tournaments with a high “teams per field” ratio, also tend to have another unpleasant characteristic, namely the difference in number of matches:

In many of the big tournaments it’s easy to calculate that some teams end up playing a much higher number of matches over a larger number of days than other teams. It is pretty common in the largest tournaments that the teams which reach the finals play more than twice the number of matches as the teams who are unlucky (or less skilled) and loose the first match in the knock-out stage.

It is our opinion than teams who pay the same entrance fees, should expect to play close to the same number of matches. This way you both avoid a situation where some teams “subsidise” the participation of other teams, but also that the best teams are allowed a fair amount of rest between the matches in the final stage of the tournament.

What are the characteristics of a “Good Youth Football Tournament”?

Firstly, what are “good youth football tournaments”?

  • In this regard “youth” refers to the classes from approximately 10 years to 16 or 18 years. It applies equally to boys and girls.
    In some federations there are specific guidelines for tournaments for classes below 12 years. This does not mean that good tournaments cannot be established for such classes, but the organiser need to adhere to the specific regulations which apply in these federations. 
  • Many tournaments define themselves as “elite tournaments”, where the organiser states specific levels of strength for participating teams. The content of this article mainly applies for “general tournaments” and to a lesser degree for elite tournaments.
  • In this context we define that “good” tournaments should meet the following two main objectives:
    • All teams play a predictable number of matches
      This means that all teams know in advance approximately how many matches they are going to play and when the last matches will be played.
    • All teams play against other teams with the same level of strength
      Uneven matches must be avoided to the extent possible. Further, during the seeding phase of the tournament the goal score should have little or no significance.

Success criterion number one

In order to meet the above objectives, there is one key criterion: Tournaments should have as many teams per class as possible!

If the tournament has capacity for 50 leams, then it is much easier to meet the above described criteria of a “good youth football tournament” if they focus on one class with 50 teams, rather than five classes with 10 teams in each.

Multi-level tournament

The concept of Multi-level tournaments is based on the idea that it shall be a “good” tournament for all teams regardless their level of skill.

In order to achieve this, the first stage of the tournament must be an effective seeding. The result of the seeding will be that the total number of participating teams are divided into divisions, where the level of skill in each division is fairly even. This ensures even matches in the remaining stages of the tournament.

The advantages relating to such concept are:

  • All teams can sign up for the tournament and be sure they will play many close matches
  • Big clubs can participate with all their teams and be sure that all play even matches
  • The tournament organiser does not need to assess the skill level of each of the teams in advance

Tournament setup

The starting point for any tournament is to define the tournament setup to be used. This must be done partly on the basis of the number of available fields and the duration of the tournament (number of days). Availability of other infrastructure (e.g. transportation, accommodation) and human resources also represent limitations that must be taken into account.

Tournament setup is basically a combination of stages with potentially different types of games:

  • Seeding stage with dynamic group matches
  • Intermediate group stage with round-robin matches
  • Play-Off stage with knockout matches

The main challenge for general tournaments is that registration is open for any teams, normally without any guiding on preferred skill level. Even after the registration is completed, it is impossible for the organiser to determine the relative strength of each of the teams.

Prior to the main stages of the tournament (Group stage and playoff stage), good general tournaments should therefore have some sort of seeding matches. This ensures that all matches in the main stages of the tournament are played between teams with similar levels of strength.

Some comments to each of the stages:

Seeding stage

The best way of organising the seeding stage is by randomly dividing the participating clubs into large groups. By using a dynamic model, it is possible to achieve a fair ranking of the teams without all teams playing against all. In fact, you avoid matches between the teams with biggest difference in level of strength.

The group stage consists of a large number of short matches, e.g. five matches of 15 to 20 minutes each. 

A big advantage with this model is that the goal difference has very little significance. In the events where teams with very different levels are set up to play against each other, the stronger team will have no incentive to force a huge victory.

The two best teams in each group proceed to Division 1, the two next to Division 2 etc.

Intermediate group Stage

This is the form in which teams are placed in smaller groups (normally three to five teams) and all teams play against all other teams. Also referred to as “Round Robin”. All teams play the same number of matches.

Knockout Stage/Play-Offs

Teams are drawn or placed against each other. Only the winner proceeds to the next round. The ultimate stages are semi-finals and finals.

Specific example of a Multi-Level Tournament

Flint Cup is a youth football tournament that has been set up to meet the above criteria. The various stages of this B14 three-day tournament can be used as an example of how Multi-Level tournaments can be defined.

The host Flint Fotball is one of the largest football clubs in Norway and has six full size football fields (11 vs 11) within a very compact arena. In the 2017 edition of the tournament, Flint planes to use five fields and has thereby capacity for 40 participating teams.

The unique part of this tournament is the seeding stage on Day 1. The teams are more or less randomly placed into four groups. In each group all teams play five short matches based on a dynamic model. This concept is presented in more detail in a separate chapter below.

The outcome of the seeding stage is that all teams are placed into five different divisions.

On day two each of the divisions are split into two groups of four teams, where “Round Robin” is played (all play against all). All teams play three matches of two times 20 minutes this day.

The outcome of day 2 is a ranking of the four teams in each division group.

This again is the basis for the knock-out stage on day three, which leads to semi-finals and finals. All teams play one or two matches on this third day of the tournament.

Seeding matches by means of a dynamic model

Dynamic in this context means that the pairing in match number two is determined after the first round has been played. Pairing in match number three is determined after the second round has been played, etc.

This means that all teams will know when their matches shall be played, but they will not know against whom and at which field. Such concept is therefore only possible if all fields are located within a compact area with walking distance between them.

A dynamic model has some obvious advantages compared to a seeding stage with fixed matches and setup:

  • A full ranking of the teams is achieved without all teams playing against all in the group. In fact, you avoid the matches between the teams with largest difference in strength
  • The goal difference has no significance in the seeding stage, which means that you avoid situations where strong teams chase large goal differences in events where uneven teams meet.
  • The two best teams in the seeding stage proceed to the division 1, which means that the second best team has the possibility to end up number two in the tournament even if it is placed in the same seeding group as the tournaments best team.

Overaged players

At this age the main reason for participating in general tournaments is to strengthen the group feeling of the players of the club. In this respect it is difficult to find argumentation for allowing overaged players in general tournaments:

Teams that have ambition to perform well in such tournaments, have no chance in achieving their goals without bringing overaged players. The overaged players are persons outside the team you want to establish a group feeling for.
Further, there are players who normally form part of the team, but are excluded in order to give room for the overaged players.

Teams which decide to invite overaged players, need to make sure that they understand the potentially negative impact this can have internally in the team.

Teams which participate in tournaments allowing overaged players, but decide not to use overaged players themselves, need to make sure that they adjust their ambitions accordingly.

However, it is important to notice that some federations still have a date separating age classes that deviates from 1. January. This especially applies for UK and some other members of the Commonwealth. We think it is fair to let clubs from such countries participate with their normal teams and allow a “fair share” of teams from these federations to be overaged, but limited to five months.

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