Benfica and Liverpool sign up for exciting Milk Cup return

Benfica legend Eusebio once described it as a winner for Northern Ireland.

As a director at Liverpool, former manager Bob Paisley turned down the opportunity to go on summer tour with the Reds to come to Ulster to watch it.

Yes, the Milk Cup tournament has been an enduring attraction for some of the world’s best known football faces over the past three decades.

Even former England boss and Liverpool hero Kevin Keegan sings its praises and he has never even been to the north coast!

Eusebio, who scored 319 goals in 313 appearances for Lisbon giants Benfica, once flew into Belfast to make the draw for the international youth tournament and labelled the event a triumph for sport and tourism but most of all for its capacity to create friendships spanning the globe.

Now his former club are returning to this summer’s 30th anniversary, along with former winners Liverpool who are back after 20 years.

Steve McManaman scored a hat-trick when Liverpool beat Motherwell 4-0 in the 1988 Premier final. Paisley, Anfield manager for nine successful seasons up until 1983, accompanied the squad, taken so much with Portrush that he returned twice.

Keegan once bumped into Milk Cup public relations officer Jim Sandford at Hampden Park and revealed that he had heard so many positive stories from football friends about the competition that he has been spreading the word ever since!

Serg Raimundo, who was a coach with Senegalese side Etoile Lusitana last year, has been working for Benfica this year and hoping to reacquaint himself with the Milk Cup.

He said: “I really hope I’ll be returning to Northern Ireland because the tournament is extremely well organised. The boys have to work really hard but it is excellent that they get five games in a week - win, lose or draw - against different styles of teams from all over the world.

“The sightseeing trips are spectacular. Last year I felt I was home because Northern Irish people were really friendly to us.”

Milk Cup chairman Victor Leonard is thrilled that the Portuguese giants and Liverpool are coming back.

“Liverpool have such strong links here and I hope their supporters will come out and back them.

“Former Republic international Steve Heighway was coach when Liverpool were last here. He had players such as Robbie Fowler, Dominic Matteo, Dungannon Swifts’ Rodney McAree and former Linfield and Ballymena United midfielder Phil Charnock in various squads.

Victor added: “We were determined to ask as many former winners as possible to join us in marking the 30th year of the competition and we are honoured that Liverpool and Benfica agreed.

Dr. Mike Johnston, chief executive of the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland, who have been backing the Milk Cup for 29 years, said: “We congratulate the organisers on achieving another important milestone. The remarkable international success of the Milk Cup is down to commitment, innovation and solid team work.”

Liverpool will compete in the Junior competition with Benfica going in the Premier section which also features regulars such as South Coast Strikers from the USA and Otago from New Zealand.

With the London Olympics getting underway on July 27, the Milk Cup kicks off on Saturday, July 21, with the six County teams hosting their opening matches in the Junior and Premier events, concluding with finals night at Ballymena Showgrounds on Thursday, July 26. The popular Milk Cup Welcome Parade of competing teams through Coleraine town centre to the Showgrounds will not change, however, taking place on Sunday, July 22.

The Milk Cup is part of a campaign that is jointly funded by the European Commission.