UEFA Champions Festival ambassador Graeme Le Saux hailed the "fantastic" power of football after Hyde Park proved the centrepiece for Europe-wide UEFA Grassroots Day celebrations.
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Mini-pitch school tournaments, grassroots skills clinics and high-profile ambassadors ensured the UEFA Champions Festival in Hyde Park provided the ideal showcase for the Europe-wide events marking UEFA Grassroots Day on Wednesday.
All of UEFA's member associations came together to celebrate a day that aims to highlight the importance of tending to football's grassroots as well as allowing the elite game to flourish. The week-long UEFA Champions Festival is the focus in the English capital of the build-up to Saturday's UEFA Champions League final at Wembley and on Wednesday it was again at the heart of the celebrations.
"The whole festival is about community and interacting with the city where UEFA is hosting the Champions League final," said UEFA Champions Festival ambassador Graeme Le Saux, who was part of a series of skills clinics conducted on the day.
"Grassroots is a huge part of that because it's about getting young people involved in football and feeling like doors are open for them to get involved. As a player you always have to remember how you felt when you were a young boy growing up and wanting to be a football player.
"With younger people who enjoy their football, you just want to make a connection with what they want to do and what you've done. You want them to feel confident enough to ask you questions, talk to you and join in. Football's fantastic like that because when you get a ball out, everybody's the same."
Although stars past and present took the spotlight for much of the day, the emphasis throughout was on promoting the foundations of the game. An eight-team mixed tournament for year six primary school children – aged ten and eleven – from the nearby borough of Lambeth, for example, was ongoing on the festival's mini-pitches.
"We're trying to make it inclusive for everybody," said David Kiobel, Lambeth council's community sports officer. "It's absolutely fantastic and I can't speak highly enough of it. The kids, the parents and even the teachers are excited to see people like Sir Trevor Brooking. If I wasn't involved in organising it, I'd definitely be down here myself."
Joining Le Saux in training local youngsters was UEFA grassroots ambassador Jay-Jay Okocha, a man with plenty of tricks up his sleeve during a playing career which included spells with Fenerbahçe SK, Paris Saint-Germain FC and Bolton Wanderers FC.
"It's a great initiative because these kids are the future," he said. "It's great to raise awareness. For them it's to aspire to reach the highest level and to be the best they can, but it's all about a solid foundation."
A special feature of the day were the adidas exhibition matches in which Chelsea FC youth teams took on a selection of sides from Brazil and Argentina who had flown to London after winning tickets to the UEFA Champions League final via tournaments in their homeland. "The result is irrelevant, they are just going out there to play and show some spirit," said Chelsea youth development officer Bob Osborn.
Also present were the likes of Sir Trevor Brooking, head of football development at the English Football Association, UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh and adidas grassroots football ambassador John Collins. "It's fantastic," said the former Scotland midfielder. "Kids are the future of football so it's important we pay attention and set up these things they will remember for the rest of their lives.
"The first thing you notice is the smile on their faces. That tells you everything – they're having fun, they're exercising, it's healthy, it's boys and girls together. That's the beauty of kids' football, it brings everybody together. The Champions Festival is a great event and it's wonderful for fans to get a taste of it."