Set to be played in four Caribbean countries – Jamaica, The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados – the NextPlay Cup, which is a competition strategically aligned to the Scotiabank Concacaf NextPlay Academy, is part of the confederation's key grassroots development portfolio.
It aims, not only to expose children --- boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 11 --- to the game, but targets the wholesome development of the children through the primary school system in the participating countries. NextPlay takes aim critically at helping the kids in character building and to ensure that key life values are passed on to them at their impressionable years.
Concacaf Director of Development Jason Roberts was spot on in his explanation of the NextPlay program and its scope.
"Football is not just about a league, it's not just about competition, it's not just about participation, but about the values one can learn through the access of the sport and that is a key pillar of our development," he told concacaf.com following Wednesday's launch, which was attended by government officials, local football dignitaries and sponsor's representatives.
"This program has grown actually out of the NextPlay Academy Afterschool Program which had its pilot here in Jamaica with four schools and 25 young people from each school, and what we found when we went back were the teachers saying how much of a difference it made in those young people's lives.
"What we have been able to put in place now with the Scotiabank NextPlay Cup, is a competition to supplement that, and I think it is very clear that here in Jamaica certainly you have a very robust program to ensure that these footballers find avenues and pathways to the next step," Roberts said.
Concacaf football ambassador, Ricardo 'Bibi' Gardner, says he relishes the opportunity to give back to football, which he admits has done so much for him.
"I am very honored to be a part of this project put together by Concacaf and Scotiabank because football has done so much for me over the years and it is always good to give back to a sport that has done so much for me and a sport that I have loved and played all my life, and to have tournaments like this for the youngsters I think it's a great platform for them to go out there and to express themselves on a daily basis and to parade the skills and talents that they have been blessed with, and if they can also learn key life principles at this age, this only makes things better for our football and our society," said Gardner, the former Jamaica international.
For members of the Iris Gelly Primary School team who were in attendance, the former Bolton Wanderers star had a bit of advise for those who may want to pursue a professional career in the sport.
"Most importantly, you have to have a love for the sport, the dedication and to treat it like life itself... you have to treat it like the important meals you have on a daily basis, for example like breakfast, lunch and dinner and not like snacks you nibble on every now and again," he said.
In a demonstration of the potential power of the NextPlay program, and the NextPlay Cup itself, 11-year-old Ashmar Jordan Battieste, a player from Iris Gelly Primary, admitted he was in awe at attending yesterday's function and meeting former football stalwarts Roberts and Gardner.
"I feel very good and to be a part of the launch of the NextPlay Cup and it's very nice to meet some of these people and I am looking forward to playing in the NextPlay Cup. But the most important moment for me and my teammates was talking to Mr Jason Roberts and Mr Ricardo Gardner today and that has inspired me more to get involved in the game and to want to be a professional player," he said.
The NextPlay Cup trophy was gloriously displayed at yesterday’s launch, and the kids from Iris Gelly Primary could not keep their hands off it.
Meanwhile, Executive Director of Scotiabank Foundation, Joylene Griffiths, saluted the conceptualizers of the NextPlay program, claiming that the innovative approach will no doubt impact lives and broaden horizons.
"I give Concacaf full hundred because this is visionary thinking to come up with this, and it is not just about Jamaica because, as they are taking it to four other countries, so for them to conceptualize this and to involve the people of the country at that grassroots level is an awesome thing," she noted.
"We are impacting lives, not only of the players, but those who don't play, because there will be those who will be cheering on their team. So when we say we are impacting lives, we are not just talking about those who wish to go onto to professional football, but there is possibility of developing sports administrators, referees, so the kids will be exposed to all of this," Griffiths added.
The NextPlay Cup will be contested by 224 primary schools and will involve 2,240 boys and girls across the four Caribbean territories. Each country will have 56 school teams, with 10 players aged 10-11 years participating in 7v7 format between urban and rural regions, each region further subdivided into four groups of six.
Participating Concacaf member associations have sanctioned the Scotiabank Concacaf NextPlay Cup, recognizing it as a top-class youth football competition. The ministries of sports and education in each of the participating countries have approved the participation of the schools in this unified competition that aims to promote values that transcend national, cultural and socio-economic barriers.