Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Return of the Wild Geese

On Saturday 8 September 2012, the current batch of Belgium GAA footballers will face their biggest threat yet: a conglomerate of past players, former comrades and old friends. The All-Stars have challenged the Belgian men to a duel on home (astro)turf. In the words of organiser Shane Griffin, the All-Stars “will return to Brussels and take on the current pretenders to their former shirts. It’s a time for anyone who enjoyed playing in the red and grey to show the 2012 team exactly what they are missing”.

The winning Belgium Shield team in Limerick, November 2011 (photo by Caoimhe Ní Shuilleabháin)

For many, Brussels is a temporary home. People arrive with a set departure date in mind, but this is usually adjusted and postponed by months or even years. While the unofficial capital of the EU has other endearing aspects in the form of its vibrant nightlife, culture and location, the GAA club is a strong welcoming presence for anyone fresh off the boat.

Oliver O’ Callaghan, who relocated to London in 2010, points out that the club acts as so much more than an athletic endeavour: “It is a social hub, a support network, a link to home and Gaelic games, and above all, the source of instant yet long-term friendships”. Other non-Irish Brussels experiences notwithstanding, he says “I never get tired of reminiscing on the adventures I undertook with this club and good times that surrounded it”.

When club members eventually move on, they do so with heavy hearts and numerous leaving parties, rarely passing up the chance to pay a return visit. The Eagles could just as easily have been referring to Brussels when they sang “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave”.

GAA in Europe provides an added twist for home-grown players: distances between clubs mean that tournaments across Europe are played on a monthly basis. Brussels-based Mayo man, Olof Gill, notes, “I've always been struck by the phrases many players repeat when they come back from European tournaments - 'a great day for the parish' after a win, 'a bad day for the parish' after a loss. It's not a coincidence that so many players use this word - it's a marvellous validation of the community aspect of the club.”

O’ Callaghan was one of the first to sign up to Shane Griffin’s All-Star experiment, the first of its kind in mainland Europe. “I thought Griff had an organisational nightmare on his hands, akin to herding cats. But it is a testament to both his efficiency and the affection retained by former players for the Belgian club that it has come together with a minimum of fuss or hassle.”

This heart-warming spirit of fellowship is overshadowed by a dark and murky policy of Social Media Sparring. Even Muhammad Ali, godfather of sporting trash talk, never anticipated such sharp sartorial wordplay as “The All-Stars are the football equivalent of the Ugg boot - out of ideas, out of luck, and past their sell-by-date” or “You are the human equivalent of sandals with socks: hideous, never in style, woefully uncool, and only ever accepted in parts of mainland Europe”. This is expected to accelerate in the lead-up to Saturday’s match.

In a hushed tone tinged with disapproval, Gill confides: “It saddens me to report that the Belgium GAA “wild geese” are, in fact, nothing more than a hotchpotch motley crew of chancers, bounders and knaves. It is a cause of great disappointment to me how these former greats have let themselves go since they left the parish.” Nevertheless, some may say that the All-Stars are at a competitive advantage: with nothing to prove and an in-depth knowledge of their opposing numbers, they have the power to shake the current team to their very core. Many of those returning on Saturday have a history with the club that goes back to the one and only European Championship won by the Belgian men, in 2008, and there is an element of “We did it then, can you do it now?” in the minds of the club veterans.

The ties that bind past members to Belgium GAA should not be underestimated: although strips will be torn from both sides, they will be torn as a test of the strength of the team that will go on to represent the club in the first Pan-European football tournament in Copenhagen the following weekend. Copenhagen will also play host to the first ladies football equivalent of 2012, where the women of Belgium will battle to maintain their four-year grip on the European Ladies Football Championship.

As for the match between Belgium GAA and the All-Stars, the endlessly quotable O’ Callaghan imagines that “on the day it will be a lot like the scene at the end of The Quiet Man - no quarter will be given, we will have a real ding-dong battle, and leave it all out there on the field: but at the end of the day, we will be singing songs and raising glasses, toasting the continued success of Belgium GAA”.

Kickoff: Saturday 8 September, 15h00, VUB, Brussels, Belgium. 
Match to be preceded by ladies football practice game at 13h00. 
On Sunday 9 September, Belgium GAA sponsors, De Valeras, will host a barbecue for Belgium GAA and show the All-Ireland Hurling Final between Galway and Kilkenny.

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