It´s 29 degrees on a Saturday morning in mid-October. A geko on a pitch-side advertising hoarding basks in the searing heat, oblivious to the group of twelve sweaty footballers running some hand passing drills only a few feet away. On the sun-drenched bleachers of the sports grounds in the tiny village of Ojen on Spain´s Costa del Sol, a curious crowd has gathered – all male; a mixture of old and young – to marvel at a sport they know nothing about.
They are as oblivious to the rules of Gaelic football as the lazy lizard is to the training session currently underway. A few of the kids comically try to replicate the hand passes they are watching. “No puedo hacerlo” – I can´t do it,” – one of them says.
The Costa Gaels, based in the popular holiday resort of Marbella, are pioneering the most Irish of sports in Spain, one of only eight GAA affiliated football clubs in the country.
“There are more and more Spanish turning up to watch each game, interested to know what we´re doing,” says Costa Gaels chairman Gordon Loughane. “We´ve had some Spaniards come down and train with us before, but generally they back off because of the physicality of the game. But sometimes they get a kick out of playing a different sport. They tell their friends and interest spreads.”
But it´s not just the Spanish who are becoming interested in the GAA. Akilless Haider, a burly, imposing 44-year-old Iraqi, is the Costa Gaels goalkeeper. Having fled Baghdad after Operation Desert Storm, Akilless worked a few jobs before ending up as a barman in an Irish bar. It was while working one Sunday afternoon that he saw his first Gaelic football match. “It was Tipperary versus Kilkenny and the bar was packed,” he recalls. “I was watching this weird game and couldn´t believe the interest in it. At first I didn´t understand the rules but from talking with the customers I gradually got a grasp on what was going on. I was hooked. When I heard there was a club based here I wanted to get involved. That was three years ago and every Wednesday and Saturday I´m the first person to show up to training. Always. The bloody Irish are always late.”
Akilless is right. Among the late Irish contingent this morning are a Ryanair pilot (no “another on-time Ryanair flight” fanfare heralds his arrival), a psychiatric nurse, an IT specialist and numerous barmen. This morning sees the first session for 18-year-old Ben Stam from Holland, decked out in a Donegal jersey. He´s young and he´s fit and he takes to his first involvement without a problem.
“The number of foreign lads getting involved in GAA sports down here is growing,” says Gordon Loughane. “”When we started ten years ago it was mainly Irish lads, but now we´re getting a mix of every kind. We´ve had Australians, Kiwis, South Africans and even Swedes playing for the Costa Gaels.”
The crowd on the sidelines continue to watch, a few them generously offering the occasional “Olé!” when the ball finds the back of the net. The hangovers get sweated out and they pack up their gear, utterly exhausted, to scattered applause from their bemused Spanish audience; the newest aficionados of one of Ireland´s oldest and beloved games.
Originally posted in the IRISH INDEPENDENT – Wednesday 14th November 2012