As we reach the business end of the European football season the major games are coming thick and fast. With title deciders, cup finals, and promotion and relegation playoffs taking place around the continent it can be easy to forget where it all begins. We spoke to BA (Hons) Football Coaching & Management student Plamen Pantev, who has been delivering a unique football tournament for children in his home town of Krivodol in Bulgaria, about the importance of making the game accessible for all and the positive impact it can have on communities…

Hi Plamen. Good to speak with you. Tell us all about the football tournament you’ve been running in Bulgaria. It sounds amazing. Who has been attending and why have you created it?

Hi there. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share our cause.

‘Be Active – Children and Football’ is a voluntary based football coaching camp and football tournament for children aged seven to 15 years from my home town of Krivodol back in Bulgaria which we are running for a second year.

The idea came after talking to a friend of mine on how children are treated back in Bulgaria and how bad the situation is with racism, discrimination, and aggression.

Therefore, the coaching and the tournament are based on community/team building exercises where children can work together to achieve results and build up new friendships.

This camp is open for everyone that would like to join. Therefore, everyone has an equal opportunity to learn and be in an environment where people get equal chances to grow as a person and potentially as a player.

Can you explain what the day-to-day routine is at the tournament? What is the format?

The format is really simple. Children are separated in different age groups where seven to nine-year-olds are training for an hour. Then the next group is aged 10 to 12 years old and they have training sessions for an hour and a half. And then 13 to 15 year olds have sessions that run for an hour and a half as well.

Doing a lot of coordination drills, ball mastery, team building, decision-making exercises and using communication helps to improve their social skills while enjoying playing football.

The actual tournament is based on the same age groups as the training sessions and we selected different teams to play each other in five or six-a-side games for 10-minute matches. At the end, everyone received little gifts and certificates as they are all winners by participating!

It sounds like the tournament is really a driving force for positive change – how powerful can football and sports be to bring people together and create positive change?

Sport has always been a driving force and can be used to create that positive impact on society.

Therefore, by using football which is the most loved sport in Bulgaria, we aimed to bring the community together, make those children feel important, happy and also give those parents a field for improvement in parent-child relationships.

How have you been able to apply the skills you’ve learnt on your coaching degree to help deliver the tournament?

As I am studying Football Coaching & Management, I was able to bring our ideas into a live event which is the actual management part – being able to delegate, negotiate and adapt in some situations.

The coaching bit came into action once everything else was set and gave me the opportunity to use the coaching in community lectures in practice.

The UEFA European Women’s U17 Championship has just taken place in Bulgaria – what benefits can hosting a tournament like this have and how can it help to develop women’s football?

Hosting an event like this can have a massive impact on women’s football in Bulgaria in many aspects. Hopefully, female players can get inspired to play the game they love.

However, the biggest win will be when society realises that girls can play football and gender should not matter.

Bulgaria has teamed up with Greece, Serbia and Romania to bid for either the 2028 European Championship or the 2030 World Cup tournaments. What impact could it have on the country to host a major tournament and what legacy could it have?

This is a great opportunity for all those countries to build up their infrastructure, build new stadiums and inspire more people to participate in sport.

As I am visiting some major football academies in Bulgaria this month, I can see there is positive change in how we coach and develop players already.

Events like this would bring even more educational programmes and inspire coaches to develop themselves to then be able to pass their knowledge to future players which would close the learning circle.

The Bulgarian Football Union have just appointed World Cup 1994 legend Krasimir Balakov as coach after Petar Hubchev became the 10th Bulgaria manager to be sacked or leave the post since 2007. From your perspective as a coaching student, why has there been such a staff turnaround over the last few years and what do you think the future could bring with Balakov in the role?

Let me start with pointing out that I am a Football Association licensed coach and I see these issues in a different way than other people might do.

With all my respect for the Bulgarian Football Union there is a lot of research and change that is required in regards to improving Bulgarian football. But that will not happen overnight.

If we look at what The FA did in England before 2015 and how much money has been invested in research on how to improve we would see why we have those numbers above.

In my opinion changing the national team coach would not change the situation. Before that we still have to make major changes in grassroots football, academy football, coach education, referee education and the society mindset in general.

I would like to wish Mr. Balakov good luck and to stay positive!

You’ve achieved several FA level 1 and 2 qualifications. For other students aiming to go along a similar pathway, what advice would you have? What’s the process for gaining these qualifications? And how has it benefitted you?

My advice to everyone doing anything in life is to make sure you do it because you want to and because you will enjoy it!

My other advice is, set your target where you want to be and why you want to be. Once you have your ‘why’, then the ‘how’ will come and you have to be patient. Do not rush it and do not collect paper, collect knowledge!

And tell us about your role as Team Manager at Wilkes Patriots U7 – what is the highlight of helping under-7s to develop their skills? What do you learn from the process and how does it make you a better coach?

Wilkes Patriots is something special!

I joined this team because a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to coach them on a voluntary basis and I said yes straight away. However, once I set the day and time for coaching on my first session I had only two players! This made me realise how important the STEP principles in coaching are and how important for a coach to be able to adapt is! I am proud of all of them for achieving so much personal development over the last few months and growing as better people!

And finally, with the Champions League final coming up on 1st June, the game will see two of the best coaches in Europe face each other. As a coaching student, what do you think sets Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino apart from their rivals? And what can you learn from them as a coach?

Realistically those two phenomenal coaches have done a great job at their clubs and I am not on a level to comment on their work. If I have to use one word to describe them both I would use: Inspirational!

As a student/coach I can learn from them when I do work experience at both clubs one day hopefully through UCFB!

By the way, I am a Manchester United fan and I hope the better team will win!