Football: Irish youngsters on verge of history

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The Independent Online
THE eyes of Ireland and much of Europe will be on the Republic's Under- 16 side tonight when they face Italy in the European Championship final. Such is the interest in the match that RTE as well as Eurosport are screening the game live from McDiarmid Park, Perth, at 7pm.

"The nation is agog at our progress," said their coach, Brian Kerr. "It would be amazing if we won. No team from the Republic has ever got near a European final, so this is an incredible achievement.

"This will be a unique and historic day in the history of Irish football and I am very proud of all of them. We are there on merit as well. Our success is based on the fact that we blend our traditional commitment with good technical ability.

"I think we must be in with a good chance in the final as we have already beaten the holders, Spain, and Portugal.

"I would expect Italy to play their normal national game. They are good at defending, quick on the break and dangerous in front of goal."

Under the flamboyant coach, Antonio Rocca, the Italians are top scorers in the tournament with 11 goals in five matches. Their key players are Atalanta's Samuele Dalla Bona and Gaetano d'Agostino of Roma.

In Tuesday's semi-finals, the Republic defeated Portugal 2-0 and Italy beat the defending champions, Spain, 2-1.

Portugal and Spain meet for third place at Stirling this afternoon. The Portuguese squad includes the youngest player in the tournament, 14-year- old Lourenco of Sporting Lisbon.

Germany's Oliver Bierhoff and his team-mate Matthias Sammer are struggling to be fit for the World Cup.

Bierhoff, who scored two goals in the Euro 96 final, is cutting short his season with the Italian club Udinese after suffering an injury to help his bid for a World Cup place.

But the former European Player of the Year Sammer has said he has "given up hope" of appearing in France after a series of knee operations.

Germany's coach, Berti Vogts, has given Sammer until May 30 to prove his fitness but, after five knee operations, the most recent in October last year, the 30-year-old's chances appear to be slim.