Milk Cup chiefs buy new flights for Zambians after visa mix-up
Milk Cup organisers had to dig deep in their pockets to ensure a Zambian team made it to Northern Ireland for their opening game at this year's youth football tournament.
Lusaka Academy almost missed their first match following an astonishing mix-up over visas.
The confusion meant the African side spent Sunday night sleeping in Copenhagen airport before arriving in Belfast, via Gatwick, at 3pm yesterday - just four-and-a-half hours before they played County Londonderry in Coleraine.
Lusaka's administrators arranged for their club to fly from Africa to Dublin on Sunday, via a connecting flight in Denmark.
Unfortunately for the young players, their club had organised British visas rather than Irish ones and airport authorities in Copenhagen refused to allow the players to board their flight to Dublin as a consequence.
As the Dale Farm Milk Cup committee didn't want the team to miss out on the opportunity to play in their prestigious tournament, they set about the expensive and arduous process of organising new flights for the Under 17 outfit.
Lusaka flew from Copenhagen to London Gatwick yesterday morning, before jetting into Belfast in the afternoon and completing their near 6,000-mile trip with a journey to Coleraine.
Milk Cup spokesman Jim Sandford said: "I wrote a letter several months ago for teams to give to the British High Commission for them to issue visas.
"Lusaka flew into Belfast last year so they weren't aware the change of plans this year would be a problem.
"I spoke to someone in Copenhagen on Sunday night and asked about the Schengen Agreement but that only applies to the EU, and Denmark aren't in it. Lusaka should have had a stamp on their visa to show permission to come through the Republic."
Mr Sandford was up until 2am yesterday sourcing new flights for the well-regarded African academy.
"We looked at every option available," he said. "We had to get them to the UK and at around midnight we were able to find a flight for all 25 to Gatwick.
"At that stage I left the office to go back to my hotel in Portstewart but when I arrived I saw an email confirming those flights but they needed more passport information. So I then came back to the office and for 45 minutes I was on the phone to make sure all of the information on each passenger was correct and I left again at 1.40am.
"Lusaka were on the 7am flight to Gatwick but we then had to find a way to get them to Belfast. We looked at flights from Gatwick but they were sold out for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
"We even looked at silly options; bussing them to Birmingham or Liverpool to catch flights or even to Cairnryan and then take the boat across. In the end, we got an Aer Lingus flight."
The mix-up has left the committee out of pocket to the tune of a four-figure sum - and Lusaka subsequently suffered a 3-1 defeat when they eventually locked horns with Londonderry.