A delay in processing visa applications has forced a Russian club to pull out of this week’s SuperCupNI international youth tournament in Northern Ireland.
Previous champions Spartak Moscow have reluctantly conceded defeat after some of their applications for visas to travel were not completed.
Despite protracted negotiations with the authorities in Russia and London and the efforts of a Northern Ireland MP, the club’s representatives in the Premier tournament have failed to make it.
Ekaterina Anisimova, international relations manager for Spartak Moscow said: “We are really disappointed that political questions can interfere with sporting and cultural events.
“They have disturbed communication and development of the progress and good will thinking.”
SuperCupNI public relations officer Jim Sandford, who had been communicating with the Russian club for several weeks, 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.”
Jim revealed that various attempts were made to discover what was holding up the travel documentation.
“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 resolves the issue.”
Spartak, who won the Premier title back in 2006, have been regular competitors at the world famous tournament.
The Russians’ heartbreaking decision to withdraw left organisers with a problem in finding a replacement at the eleventh hour.
Belfast-based elite performance coach Stephen Small, who played in the event in its early years, will manage a National Select of Northern Ireland players who were involved in trials with the six County sides at Under-17 level.
“It is an unexpected opportunity for the players to be involved and the response has been incredible,” said Stephen who competed with a Star of the Sea team which included Jim Magilton and finished runners-up in the subsidiary Plate final in 1986.
“We owe Stephen and his coaches a huge debt of gratitude for stepping into the breach,” said Jim Sandford. “He is a highly respected coach at Cliftonville and was an exceptional player for the club over many years.”
National Select will compete in Group E, starting their campaign against County Fermanagh at The Warren in Portstewart on Monday evening at 5pm.
Former Northern Ireland international Gerry Armstrong, a longstanding supporter of the competition, will officially open the tournament today at Ballycastle Road Showgrounds.
He 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.”