Tartan Army's teenage Braveheart fulfils a dream to lead out team

IF TOMORROW evening is to be a test not only of skill, but character and fortitude, the 11 men on whom a nation depends need look no further for an inspirational figure than directly ahead and down. There, wearing an expression of unbridled joy, will be Kemal Karic.

Come 5pm, as dusk settles over Glasgow and the fans' roar reminds all present of what is at stake, the Bosnian teenager will take pride in his role as official match mascot and walk the Scottish national side out for their date with destiny against Italy.

"It will be a great feeling, like the best dream," he said yesterday. "[Like] something I only saw on television. Hampden is a great stadium and Scotland fans are great."

Kemal was only a baby in the arms of his mother when tragedy struck from above. War raged in Bosnia, and Sarajevo was a besieged city.

Over the smouldering ruins and damaged buildings, mortar shells rained down. Kemal's mother, terrified and stuck in the middle of the street, darted for cover in a nearby shelter. A single shell struck her as she ran. She died instantly, at the age of 26. Her infant son fell beside her, badly injured.

That day in May 1992, before he had even a chance to envision it, an ambition to become a professional footballer was stolen from him by a crude shard of metal.

Kemal was taken to Kosevo Hospital, where armed guards stood outside among the sandbags shielding the entrance.

Inside, doctors fought to repair the damage wrought on four-month-old Kemal's tiny body, and his right leg was amputated. Transferred to the children's ward, he was kept in a crib, wrapped in a blue and white romper suit, the right leg of which dangled loose below his knee.

After three months, with a wooden splint attached to the stump that remained of his leg, Kemal was ushered out of his comparative sanctuary and back into the city.

It was while living with his grandmother, Adila, in the basement of a bombed-out house that fortune, until then a stranger, smiled on him.

Toni Capuozzo, an Italian journalist covering the war, heard of the baby's plight, and offered refuge. Hiding Kemal into the boot of his car, Mr Capuozzo drove across the border and escaped a war that would ultimately claim the lives of about 1,600 children and, according to UNICEF, wound as many as one in four. For the next five years, Kemal stayed with Mr Capuozzo's family in Italy. Only when Sarajevo's skies fell silent, did he return to Grandma Adila.

Mr Capuozzo, now 59 and host of the Italian current affairs show, Terra, still keeps in touch with Kemal's family. He was the first to show benevolence to Kemal and his family, but it is the Tartan Army who have taken him under their wing.

In 1999, Scotland fans travelled to Bosnia Herzegovina for a Euro 2000 tie. One fan, Ally MacIver, befriended Mirza Muminovic, a medical student who worked as a translator during the war. He relayed Kemal's story, and Mr MacIver, a civil engineer from Aberdeen, wondered how he might help.

Soon, an appeal was launched through the Tartan Army's internet messageboard. Its goals were modest: to raise 1,500 to buy Kemal a state-of-the-art adjustable prosthetic limb; and help fund improvements to Adila's house.

As the weeks passed, so the fundraising initiatives become more diverse and ambitious. Social nights grew into sponsored parachute jumps and cliff climbs.

Personalised T-shirts were printed, and Mr MacIver put together an official songbook of the Tartan Army, the proceeds from which went to Kemal's fund. By the time the appeal closed five years ago, it totalled 4,792.

Along with his new leg and the repairs to his family home, Kemal was presented with a personalised Scotland shirt. It was a gesture which gave rise to a renewed appeal, and the Tartan Army is still helping disadvantaged children the world over. "It's probably the best thing I've ever been involved with in my life," Mr MacIver said.

Since then, Kemal, now 15, and Mirza, who acts as his translator, have been proud to call themselves honorary Tartan Army footsoldiers.

Two years ago, Kemal was supposed to come to Hampden to lead out the national side, but he had to go into hospital for treatment for blood vessel problems. Tomorrow, regardless of the score, Hampden will witness at least one precious victory.

THE SUNSHINE APPEAL

KEMAL is just one of the many children who have been helped by the generosity of Scotland fans.

After their efforts to help the youngster, the donations, pledges, and fundraising initiatives continued so the Tartan Army Sunshine Appeal was set up.

The initiative, says Ally Hunter, part of the appeal's steering committee, shows that being part of the Tartan Army "is more than a love of football or representing Scotland abroad. It's about making friends wherever we go".

Wherever the Scotland team goes, donations are made to organisations for disadvantaged and chronically ill children, often identified by the local British Embassy.

Mostly, the donations are made in cash, but the appeal has also gifted the needy with clothes, toiletries, toys, and sweets.

The scope has grown significantly recently, and has benefited children in nearly two dozen countries. Alongside the main appeal there is also the Tartan Army Children's Charity, a body which garners donations from businesses as well as ordinary supporters.

Recently, the new group donated 15,000 for medical equipment in Tbilisi, Georgia and raised 11,000 for charities in Kiev.