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GAA is thriving in Abu Dhabi
If you are near the rugby pitches at Zayed Sports City some Sunday or Wednesday evening, you will see teams of men and women playing football.
They will run, kick and then bend down to pick up the ball. Play will not stop, because no foul has been committed. Instead, the players may bounce the ball on the ground and back up into their hands, or maybe strike it with their wrists to another player.
The sport is still football, but of the Gaelic variety. It is a unique possession of the Irish, but they take it with them wherever they go, including the United Arab Emirates. Last weekend, Abu Dhabi Irish Society and Abu Dhabi Na Fianna, the local Gaelic football and hurling club, hosted the Etihad Irish Festival, comprising cultural activities and a regional tournament of Ireland’s national sports. Over 30 teams, both male and female, traveled from all over the Middle East to compete in Abu Dhabi.
“This is the first Irish Festival we’ve had in Abu Dhabi. We’ve had numerous Irish events before, but never over a three-day period and to the huge extent we had over this weekend,” says Trevor Buckley, vice-president of Abu Dhabi Irish Society and chairman of Na Fianna. The festival featured musical performances by Thresh the Corn and Hermitage Green, who flew in from Ireland for the event. Famed Gaelic footballer Pat Spillane also traveled to Abu Dhabi to oversee the sports competition.
“This is amazing, isn’t it? Out in Abu Dhabi, 50, 60 Irish playing,” remarks Mr. Spillane, observing the last training session before the tournament. “The GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] is a great bond, because wherever you go in the world, there’s a GAA club. It’s popular everywhere because there’s been so much immigration out of Ireland the last few years. There are new GAA clubs in every city, in the most random places. I think the most recent one was in Mongolia.”
The GAA is Ireland’s largest sporting organization and regulates the three national sports of Gaelic football, hurling and handball. Abu Dhabi Na Fianna, the local GAA club, offers the opportunity to play the first two.
“Football in this part of the world is more popular,” says Mr. Buckley. “It’s easier for expatriates from different places to adapt to the game. We’ve got a mixture of nationalities out here.”
Anyone is welcome to join the teams, adds Mr. Buckley, noting that people of different backgrounds are often introduced to the sport through Irish friends. Teams and competitions are categorized according to proficiency levels, which is lucky for newcomers as both Gaelic football and hurling require the development of special skills. Of the two sports, the latter generally seems to be considered the more challenging.
“Hurling would be the greatest field game in the world. It is the fastest, the most skillful game, and it’s one of those games you learn to play by picking up your hurley at age three or four to learn. Picture Tiger Woods hitting a ball, but there’s ten fellows trying to hit it at the same time. The hurlers can do it just as accurately, just as long as and just as skillful as Tiger Woods,” he says.
Perhaps because hurling demands more specialised skills, it is less widely played both at home and abroad. Mr. Buckley points out that although there are 32 counties in Ireland, only 16 usually compete for the nation’s hurling championship. In the Abu Dhabi tournament, one hour out of seven was set aside for the hurling competition. Many of the local hurlers come from Irish counties known for excellence in the sport. According to Mr. Spillane, “hurling is associated with the good land, the flat land in Ireland, and football is traditionally associated with the bad land and the mountains.”
In other words, the Irish find ways to play Gaelic football everywhere. The sport is believed to have descended from the medieval Irish game of caid, which was played by members of neighboring communities over a distance of miles. The modern game was established in the late 1800s and shares many features with hurling, including the pitch, the H-shaped goalposts and the scoring system.
Gaelic football involves no equipment other than a ball, which is slightly smaller and heavier than a standard football. Players can use both their hands and feet to strike the ball and must, when carrying the ball, release, bounce or “solo” it after every four steps. Soloing involves dropping the ball onto one’s foot and kicking it back up into one’s hands—one of the more distinctive features of the game.
Mastering these skills demands a great deal of training, and it is a remarkable fact that even the most accomplished GAA athletes have other jobs. “It’s an amateur organization,” explains Mr. Buckley. “Players aren’t paid to play. I suppose they do train like professionals, though. The top players back home, the inter-county players, will train maybe five times a week. But it’s for love of the jersey.”
Because money does not play into the equation, GAA athletes can only represent the county to which they have the deepest ties. For Mr. Buckley and other Irish fans, this sets their national sports apart from others.
“Anyone can travel to England and play for the Premier League. At the end of the day, it means a lot to that player. But when someone is representing where he’s from, that’s a huge attraction for the fans. If a player reaches the pinnacle of his career and he’s playing in an all-Ireland final, he’s representing the region he was born in,” he says.
Here in the UAE, where the players come from different countries as well as counties, something of this spirit can be seen on the field. Teammates huddle close together before the tournament begins, shouting “Abu Dhabi!” in one mighty voice before dispersing on the pitch. “The love of the community, the pride in the jersey —it never goes,” notes Mr. Spillane.
This message has been edited - 28-apr-2012 @ 00:14
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