Youngsters of Europe united by football and fun

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The Independent Online
Today, a Derbyshire village could achieve what our national side was unable to do - win Euro 96 for England. For the past week, cries of "We're on our way to Clapham" have been echoing around Shardlow, whose team have conceded just one goal in their qualifying matches (eat your heart out, Terry Venables).

Wembley, unfortunately, is otherwise occupied on finals day tomorrow. But the sponsor Coca-Cola has not let a mere detail wreck the dreams of 16 nations. "If we can't have it, we'll build it," the company decided. So this week it constructed a replica of England's showpiece ground - royal box, twins towers and all - on south London's Clapham Common. When you are 14 years old and you have come all the way from Croatia, Romania or Turkey, who cares if Wembley is on the wrong side of the Thames?

Shardlow St James' manager, Gary Smith, is still slightly dazed that his under-15 squad cleaned up in the Leeds regional qualifier for the Coca-Cola Junior European Tournament. The six-a-side team, one of 64 that competed at Roundhay Park, is a pretty handy side, including Nathan Stanton, who has trials for Mansfield next season, and Gary's son Stephen, who has trained with Derby.

But this competition, for girls and boys, is not aimed at tomorrow's stars - players from schools of excellence are officially excluded. It is all part of the FA/Coca-Cola development programme, providing grassroots activities for children to play football. In this age group, the sport is refreshingly free of cynical tripping, shirt-tugging and body-checking. It is played for fun, not money, as an all-Asian team from Huddersfield shows.

Maqsood Akhtar's Extra Hot Five were knocked out in the early stages. "We're more used to playing five-a-side indoors than on grass," Maqsood said philosophically afterwards. "Still, we have won two major five-a side events and represented Yorkshire in a national competition."

That's pretty good, considering that the squad is run on a shoestring. Maqsood pays most of their expenses himself, though he is studying for a BSc in leisure management and his only income comes from working as a part-time coach for Kirklees Council. "We can't afford to take part in an 11-a-side league because of a lack of finance," he says. "Asian businesses won't support us because they are more interested in cricket, while other businesses won't back us because we are all Asian."

Tom Baxter, manager of Meanwood Boys, from Leeds, was disappointed that his team, winners of the Harrogate under-15 league for the past three years, were beaten in the semi-finals. The camcorder that went to the winning coach would have been nice, though he had planned to sell it and split the profits between his team anyway. What he really wanted, however, was for his side to go to London and be scooped up by scouts from the major clubs. "This is what we aim at, but the clubs don't seem to send scouts round any more, spotting talent."

Still, for youngsters who don't think they will make it at football, there was an Army information office on hand at Roundhay Park. Players who weren't worn out by a round- robin of 10-minute matches could try their hand at an assault course, which led neatly to a recruiting exhibition. "The main questions they ask are: 'Will I be sent to Northern Ireland?' and 'Will I be able to play football?' " a sergeant said.

Another bonus for the 300 players was the chance to kick a football with Tony Dorigo. (Exclusive! I want to stay at Leeds!) Cynics suggested he was on a mission from Howard Wilkinson to find someone under 30 for the Leeds squad. Unfortunately for the Leeds scout it was a girl, Louise Marshall, who looked the most skilful player. Louise, who plays for Morley Girls, headed the ball without a break more than 60 times (significantly more than Baddiel and Skinner managed on Fantasy Football). But even at six- a-side, it's no good relying on one star. Her side came nowhere, beaten by eventual winners Leeds United Girls.

Seven girls' teams took part, though there were more at several of the other qualifiers. The idea that they should be considered equal to the boys came as quite a shock to some. "They were really surprised to find there were medals and cups for them as well," said Coca-Cola's Rob Cohen.

Leeds may have been only one of eight regional finals, but the event drew heavy media attention. Most pressmen, however, were competing in the area finals of Coca-Cola's young reporter competition. The winner was 10-year-old Charles Parry from Acomb. He practises by turning down the television and commentating on matches for his grandmother, who is blind. "I want to be a sports reporter when I am older, but for a newspaper rather than radio," Charles said. Good man.

He picked up slightly under the National Union of Journalists official rate for match reporting, going home with a hat and a T-shirt. But with budding hacks from regional heats in the other seven host cities, he travelled to London for the finals. A dazzling analysis of England's midfield deficiencies there could win him a far greater reward - a trip to Brazil.

Today's round-robin matches will decide which of the eight teams will represent England. The internationals take place tomorrow. Group matches will mirror the senior event, with England playing Scotland, the Netherlands and Switzerland at first. Winning teams - boys and girls - get a free trip to Brazil, which includes games against junior sides there, coaching from Brazilian internationals and the chance to have their performances dissected in print by the winning young reporter.

Coca-Cola has been so impressed by the success of mini-Euro 96 that it is looking at a similar event in two years' time. If that went ahead, we might even see Shardlow playing Brazil in the World Cup final.