Photo courtesy of Edna Zhou
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Dublin's Croke Park Stadium hosts many of Ireland's big Gaelic football matches. Now the sport has made its way to Asia.
Move over, Guinness—Ireland’s most popular export to Asia is a little-known sport called Gaelic football.
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Whenever I move to a new country, I employ a secret trick for making myself feel settled straight off the plane. Before I unpack my bags, get a SIM card, or even consider buying groceries or taking a nap, I email the local Gaelic football team.
This tactic has now worked across five countries on three continents, and never fails to provide me with an instant community of friends, drinking buddies, and workout companions all at the same time.
That’s the magic of Gaelic football: a sport native to Ireland that combines various elements of soccer, volleyball, basketball, and the defining move of bouncing the ball off your foot (not the ground!) as you’re running—a technique called “soloing.” It has become especially popular in the past decade as Irish émigrés left home during the global recession to find better opportunities abroad, bringing their football boots with them. Surprisingly, one of the regions where it’s flourishing most is in Asia.
Before I unpack my bags, get a SIM card, or even consider buying groceries or taking a nap, I email the local Gaelic football team.
I first discovered the sport a decade ago when I moved to China, an 18-year-old newbie expat from the United States looking for some fellow Anglophones to socialize with and share a cheeky pint—a common origin story for how many people, both Irish and not, end up drawn into Gaelic football.
When the game was introduced in the region in the 1990s and early 2000s, players mainly joined for the social aspect. “It was more an opportunity to get together,” says Joe Trolan, head of the Asian County Board, the governing body for the sport in Asia. “The football was secondary.”
Things have definitely evolved, however, since the first Asian Gaelic Games, held in 1996 when Manila hosted just four men’s teams. “Back then, one field and one day were all you needed,” according to Trolan. The annual tournament, hosted every fall in a different city in the region, now regularly draws nearly 1,000 athletes and spectators from countries all over Asia, with the 2017 edition seeing 710 male and female players from 63 teams and 17 clubs battle it out across multiple pitches over a long weekend in Bangkok. (In the video below, a player for the Saigon Gaels talks about the Gaelic football scene at the Asian Gaelic Games.)
But why move to a foreign country in Asia just to pick up an Irish sport? Most teams include not only Irish and local players, but also plenty of Aussies, Americans, Swedes, Germans, and transplants from everywhere else. For non-native English speakers, training sessions and social nights out often serve as an opportunity for language practice; for everyone, it provides a bridge between cultures, a chance to interact with a diverse social family that may be hard to find otherwise.
Thousands of miles from home, the foreign twist has affected the Irish, too. In playing the game with so many inexperienced newcomers, “your definition of success changes,” says Trolan. “Results matter, but at the end, they don’t matter. It’s great to see someone who started in April take the ball, solo with it and kick it over the bar [in a game in October]. I find that more rewarding than getting a medal at the end of a tournament.”
There are now 20 teams across Asia, and numerous regional tournaments are hosted throughout the year aside from the annual continental championship. Clubs are also evolving to become less Irish-centric and more integrated with the local culture—for example, some are considering changing their logos to blend local symbols into the Celtic ones—and others have begun implementing training sessions and club emails in local languages alongside English.
Trolan and the many youth coaches in Asia have put in years of outreach, too, in local and international schools, which culminated in the first-ever Asian Youth Championships in 2016 in Hanoi, Vietnam. Notably, in the growing number of youth clubs in Asia—including multiple ones in Shanghai, Seoul, and Hanoi—most players are not of Irish descent.
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Regardless of how much the sport has advanced, the underlying theme of camaraderie remains. For every Irish teammate who’s been playing his whole life, there’s another who never kicked a ball at home but is ready to pick one up in their newly adopted country for the social opportunities it provides.
For every Irish teammate who’s been playing his whole life, there’s another who never kicked a ball at home but is ready to pick one up in their newly adopted country for the social opportunities it provides.
Ten years after I donned my first Irish jersey, Gaelic football has now evolved into a major part of my expat identity. I know that no matter where I move next, regardless of language or cultural barriers, I have a community waiting for me.
As Trolan told me, “Gaelic football is a bridge from home. You’ll gravitate towards it no matter where you go.” Even if that definition of home isn’t Ireland, Gaelic football clubs can make anywhere feel just like it.
For upcoming tournaments in the region, check out Asian County Board. Tournaments and training sessions are always free to the public to watch.
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