Visa row hits SuperCupNI as Russian stars replaced by Northern Ireland select side
Local team step in to replace Spartak Moscow youngsters
It's often said the politics and sport should not mix, but the United Kingdom's problematic relationship with Russia seems to have stopped Spartak Moscow playing at this year's SuperCupNI.
The Russian team planned to play in the Premier section of the popular youth tournament, but their club was unable to secure visas for their young players. Over the last week, there have been protracted negotiations between the club and the authorities in Russia and London. Even the best efforts of East Londonderry Gregory Campbell MP was unable to secure the Moscow's entry into the UK.
A despairing Spartak Moscow executive Ekaterina Anisimova said, "We are really disappointed that political questions can interfere with sporting and cultural events.
"They have disturbed our player's development and progress, as well as our goodwill."
SuperCupNI public relations officer Jim Sandford said, "This is a huge blow for the young players who had been looking forward to coming to Northern Ireland and competing in our event.
"When Spartak began to raise doubts about the visa application process, we feared there could be major difficulties.
"We did absolutely everything within our power to bring Spartak Moscow to Northern Ireland, to no avail. We are grateful to local MP Gregory Campbell for his help in the matter. He tried his best for us including contacting the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in an attempt to resolve the issue."
Former Cliftonville player and Carrick Rangers manager Stephen Small came to the rescue of the popular youth tournament, that kicks-off in Coleraine this morning.
Small sprung into action, pulling together a local select side to replace Spartak Moscow. The team, playing under the title of National Select of Northern Ireland, consists of players who were not selected for their respective county teams.
Small said, "It is an unexpected opportunity for the players to be involved and the response has been incredible."
National Select will compete in Group E, starting their campaign with a game against County Fermanagh at The Warren in Portstewart this evening (5pm).
The Russian revelation did not put a dampener on last night's SuperCupNI Parade and Opening Ceremony, which attracted a large crowd to the Coleraine Showgrounds and into Coleraine town centre.
The tournament was opened by Northern Ireland World Cup star and television pundit Gerry Armstrong. Addressing the crowd, the former Mallorca striker said, "SuperCupNI's importance not only as a sports event but also in promoting all that is good about Northern Ireland should never be taken for granted.
"It is a world class tournament which continues to portray the country positively worldwide.
"I've followed this tournament for many years and continues to help young players achieve their goal of playing in the professional game. 27 former SuperCup players played at this year's World Cup, and I'm sure many of the boys here today will go on to play in future World Cups."
Although the Premier (Under 17), Junior (Under 15) and Minor (Under 13) competitions kick-off this morning, Celtic have already secured the Elite (Under 19) trophy.
At The Coleraine Showgrounds on Saturday night, Celtic defeated Manchester United 3-1 in a one-off fixture, that drew a bumper crowd.
Striker Ewan Henderson was the hero for the Scottish side, scoring two second-half goals after Republic of Ireland youth international Thomas Caffrey had equalised. Manchester United led for most of the game thanks to a first-half goal from Ethan Laird.
Former Manchester United star and Milk Cup graduate Philip Neville attended the game. His son Harvey had hoped to play in the game, but his transfer from Valencia to United was not completed in time for Saturday's fixture.
Neville Snr said, "The tournament was where it all started for me at United. I remember having a wonderful time here.
"We came here after only two weeks at United and it was a real learning curve for me. It's a wonderful tournament."
Today's action sees Manchester United's Under-15 team play County Londonderry at the Coleraine Showgrounds in a 7.30pm kick-off, while in the Premier Section, Newcastle United play County Down at the Ballymena Showgrounds, with kick-off at 7pm.
Coleraine's University campus will host the new Minor competition, featuring NIFL Premiership teams Coleraine, Linfield, Glentoran, Glenavon and Dungannon Swifts.