It is not only the First and Deputy First Ministers who have been selling Northern Ireland’s football brand to South America.
Organisers of the Northern Ireland Milk Cup international youth football tournament have just landed another major victory on that score.
And now it transpires that a trip to Northern Ireland this summer is the goal for hundreds of young Chilean footballers in a unique qualifying competition in the city of Colina which is part of the Santiago metropolitan region.
So while there has been a blaze of publicity for the arrival of the Giro D’Italia tour cycle event here next year, the Milk Cup has – until now – slipped under the radar in its role featuring Northern Ireland in Chile.
Competitors in the annual Ganamos Todos tournament in Colina will next month have the opportunity to compete at the world renowned Milk Cup as an added incentive. The winner of the 64-team event for under-15 footballers will represent Chile here this summer.
The trip was the brainchild of one of the best known names in world footballl, Harold Mayne Nicholls, who has been hugely impressed by the Milk Cup, a major success story for Northern Ireland both at home and abroad.
Mayne Nicholls is ex-president of the Chilean Football Federation and former head of development for FIFA in South America. He helped make the draw for last year’s Milk Cup in Belfast not long after he had led the FIFA evaluation group that inspected venues for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup final bids and met Prince William, Prime Minister David Cameron, and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Milk Cup chairman Victor Leonard said: “It was great to see our politicians on a recent initiative to build political, business and tourism links with Brazil, projecting our sporting heritage through the great George Best.
“There is a shared passion for football between ourselves and South America and we have been cultivating that over the past ten years, bringing the flavour of Northern Ireland to many countries in that part of the world.
“Positively promoting Northern Ireland abroad has always been part and parcel of what we are about. It was one of the reasons we established the event at a time when the country was embroiled in strife and, sadly, the images projected across the globe reflected that.
“The late Bertie Peacock, who was instrumental in starting the event, gave George Best his international debut when he managed the Northern Ireland team, and shared our passion to show the world the positive side of our country through football.”
But Victor stresses that the tournament has always been much more that just the game itself.
“It’s not only about being able to welcome competitors and other visitors from abroad when they arrive here for the event,” he said. “But also about how we showcase our competition and the whole Northern Ireland visitor experience around the world in the other 50 weeks of the year.
“It is such a thrill for all of us involved in the event to see positive images of our country and its stunning scenery portrayed on websites bringing a flavour of our country to a worldwide audience.”
Over the years Harold Mayne Nicholls has been instrumental in helping the organisers secure some of the most exciting national and club sides at the Milk Cup from countries such as Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay.
“He helped open up an important new phase in the competition’s history and we have been enjoying the benefits ever since with some of the most gifted young players from the continent gracing our event,” revealed Victor who established the event along with Bertie Peacock and Belfast based administrator Jim Weir in the early eighties.
“Last year we welcomed the national team from Chile to the Elite competition, Desportivo Brazil in the Premier, along with newcomers Union Temuco, from Chile, in the Junior section.
“This year we hope to have further representation from South America as we continue to strengthen our links there.”
This summer’s tournament, which is being played in the four Council areas of Coleraine, Ballymena, Limavady and Ballymoney, is shaping up to be one of the best yet, according to Victor, with some of the leading clubs in world football hoping to be involved.
The draw will take place on Tuesday, April 30, at W5 in the Odyssey Complex, Belfast.
Milk Cup supporters are again expected to turn out in their thousands in Coleraine on Sunday, July 28. The welcome parade of participating teams begins at the Diamond and will include the winning team from the Chilean tournament. Finals night will be Friday, August 2, at Ballymena Showgrounds - a great night for all the family.
The Milk Cup is sponsored by the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland and is supported by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, BBC NI and the four Council areas of Coleraine, Ballymena, Ballymoney and Limavady.