The Milk Cup 2007
Cathal Coyle has the lowdown on Europe's premier youth football tournament
The unveiling of the Bertie Peacock statue in Coleraine on June 28 was the perfect prelude to the 25th Milk Cup - a tribute to one of Northern Ireland’s footballing heroes of yesteryear and one of the original organisers of the tournament.
The silver anniversary tournament followed the same format as the previous 24, with three age groups: junior (under 14), premier (under 16) and elite (under 19) playing across four different Borough Council areas on the north coast.
When the anniversary celebrations subsided, the football played at this year’s Milk Cup was of the highest quality. The cosmopolitan atmosphere was enhanced by the inclusion of newcomers like South Coast Bayern, from Florida, and Aspire, from Qatar.
The Irish teams acquitted themselves well, with Co Tyrone and St Kevin’s in the junior section and Co Fermanagh in the Premier section proving that NI's teenage footballing prowess is at a high level.
With a plethora of scouts from across the UK and Europe present at the event, the north coast was the place to be for any aspiring young footballers seeking to showcase their abilities.
The junior section contained 24 sides at the outset, and by Thursday had been whittled down to four. From an NI perspective, an obvious highlight was the stellar performance of Co Tyrone. They reached the semi finals of the tournament, beating Aspire and River Plate along the way, only to be undone by the odd goal or 5 by the eventual winners Guadalajara, from Mexico. The Mexican side defeated St Kevin’s from Dublin in the final, despite the heroics of goalkeeper Ryan Kinsella. Their single-goal victory came from the boot of Manuel Flores. Other big names in this section included Chelsea and AIK Stockholm.
It was a case of the cream rising to the top in the premier section, with the Brazilian brilliance of Fluminense shining through to win the trophy - although a gallant Manchester United pushed them to extra time in the final.
The plucky performances of Co Fermanagh were one of the premier highlights of the week. New Zealanders Otago and Argentine starlets River Plate were both defeated by a single goal by the Erne county boys. It was only the classy Fluminense who halted their progress at the quarter final stage, winning by three goals to nil.
One of the most extraordinary performances of the week was Fluiminense’s expert dismantling of the Co Tyrone premier side at the Riada stadium in Ballymoney. On an unexpectedly warm and pleasant Tuesday evening, the Brazilian XI were five goals up after 25 minutes. Other star turns in this section came from Daniel Welbeck of Manchester United and the team performances of Benfica and FC Brussels.
In the elite section Israel overpowered the NI under-19s. Despite the green-and-whites taking an early lead in the final through Jonathan Taylor, an invigorated Israeli side raised their game, with captain Maor Bar Buzaglo scoring arguably one of the finest goals ever seen at the Milk Cup. Collecting a pass outside the box, he angled his shot past NI goalkeeper Carson from eight yards, leaving the final score 4-1 to Israel.
NI drew 2-2 with Turkey in their opening fixture, followed by a morale-boosting 3-2 victory over Chile in the next game, and enough to earn the local lads a place in the final. Israel displayed great style in reaching the final, scoring five goals against a hapless Denmark and passing Wales with only two conceded. They were deserved victors and follow in the footsteps of compatriots Maccabi Haifa, who won the junior section in 2004.
A few individual awards were scooped by local players. Down’s Aaron Burns was awarded the Bertie Peacock bursary for most promising Ulster player in the junior competition, Antrim's Kyle Buckley won the premier competition bursary. These two players will now spend a week in Rotterdam in the company of Feyenoord, one of the top teams in Holland, recieving expert coaching and advice. Burns also shared the junior player of the tournament award with two other players, Milan Lalkovic of Chelsea and Nis Lundgaard of Danish side Lyngby Boldklub.
One of the greatest disappointments of the week was the absence of an Irish winner in the three sections (the last team to win any of the sections was the Northern Ireland elite squad of 1997). However, this didn’t detract from the drama and excitement with most spectators impressed by the ‘samba flair’ of Fluminense and the north American craft of Guadalajara.
The best individual display was perhaps that of Maor Bar Buzaglo in the elite final, a considerate team player who was able to exert his own personal influence to give Israel the edge over the hosts. Expect to see more of this gifted player in years to come.
The Milk Cup tournament gains popularity with every passing year. In 2007, over 6,000 spectators attended the finals in Coleraine, and more quality teams enter each year. The competition has the unofficial title of premier youth football tournament in Europe. Roll on 2008 and the beginning of another quarter-century of Milk Cup entertainment.