Imported Sports - Gaelic football among the Irish community
Catalonia’s diverse immigrant population have brought new traditions and sports to our shores
Catalonia has a plentiful and diverse community of immigrants hailing from all over the globe. With them, they bring their customs, traditions, and culture, including their sports.
Among the imports is the sizeable Irish community that have set up Gaelic football teams in Barcelona, as well as in the unlikely coastal town Sitges, with a population of just around 30,000.
Gaelic football is one of the national sports of Ireland, with its organizing body, the GAA, dating back to the late 1800s. It is normally played on a field nearly twice the size of a conventional soccer pitch, with 15 players per team aiming to score points - over the bar and through the posts - or else goals, worth three points.
The ball can be carried in players’ hands but must be bounced on the ground (called a ‘hop’) or else quickly dropped onto the player’s foot and kicked back into their arms (called a ‘solo’) every 3-4 steps taken, or else a foul will be called. Players can play passes with their hands or equally by kicking the ball.
Even in Ireland, where the pinnacle of the sport usually attracts crowds of 80,000 for the All-Ireland Final, the game is a strictly amateur sport, meaning there are no professional contracts, no player is paid for their skills, and the game relies on the efforts and goodwill of volunteers and people who love the sport and tradition. In Catalonia, the situation is no different.
Catalonia currently boasts four Gaelic football teams; Barcelona Gaels, St Enda’s, Gran Sol - a team primarily made up of Galicians living in Barcelona - as well as Sitges GAA.
In this part of the world, teams compete in a regionalized Copa Catalana, the Catalan Cup, for the right to then move forward to the Iberian Championship, where they face various other sides from across Spain. The winners of the Iberian Championship can also move on to compete in the European Football Championships.
GAA comes to Sitges
Emerging from the shadow of the Catalan capital is the Sitges GAA team, founded by Dubliner Michael Collins in 2015, the team has grown from strength to strength in the years since, owing its success largely to how well the local Irish community have embedded into the town, attracting many local sitgetans to join the team.
“I always thought it’d be nice to have a club here but it seemed a bit unlikely because it’s a smaller town,” club founder Michael Collins tells Catalan News when we visited a training session. He tells us that ahead of every training session on Mondays and Thursdays, he walks “with a big smile on [his] face,” as the team has become a huge success in Sitges.
What started off as a fanciful idea in the Tres Quarts sports bar in the town between a few Irish friends quickly caught fire. Collins explains that, quite simply, a WhatsApp group was started and thus the team was born, and that gave him the determination to go ahead and find a suitable pitch to play on, which he eventually found at the Rugby Club who were “very accommodating.”
After contacting the European County Board, the body that organizes the sport on the continent, Sitges GAA were awarded a grant which they were able to use to pay for Gaelic footballs, training gear, and their own jerseys.
From mostly Irish to mostly Catalan locals
Initially, the team was made up mostly of Irish people, but nowadays there are just five members of the 25-person-strong team, with the majority of the team hailing from the town of Sitges.
“Once you get the locals in, then they can spread the word. It’s much easier,” Collins tells us. “Because they just think, ‘ah it’s too violent, too rough for me, you play on a rugby pitch so it must be like rugby,’ when it’s not really.”
Diego Fabra, one of the Catalan locals who plays on the team, tells us that “it’s beautiful to suddenly start a sport where you are useless. You don’t have a clue about the rules, how it’s played, where it comes from, anything at all, and then you have to move out of your comfort zone and learn new skills.”
Fabra was indeed very suddenly thrust out of his comfort zone in his first match. “The first ball, I was waiting there with the ball, and suddenly I was on the floor. I didn’t understand what the hell happened,” he says, laughing. “It took me a while to understand the contact and everything that was needed. But now I am the one giving fouls and everything, I don’t have any problem now,” he proudly declares.
First win and grand ambitions
All in all, it took Sitges GAA three years of hard work and preparation to win their first game, which eventually came in 2018. Collins visibly beams with delight as he reminisces: “It was brilliant, it was like we had won the All-Ireland. It was just unbelievable.”
“It was a friendly game against our big rivals from Barcelona,” he says. “I’ll never forget it, we scored a penalty in the last minute, it was very dramatic. And then we had the Copa Catalana later on that year and we won that. 2018 was a great year for us.”
As is often the case with sporting teams, the fun and social side of being a part of the team can be one of the most rewarding aspects. “The social side of it is the best part of it,” Fabra assures. “We used to go for a weekend to Zaragoza, Valencia, one of these cities, and all the teams would join there, and you’d play for the whole day, three or four matches, and then afterwards we go for dinner and there would be 150 people there.”
Currently, as the Covid-19 pandemic carries on, the team is limited to training sessions and playing matches among themselves. Michael Collins says he would be delighted just to be able to even play another friendly match against any opponent, but Diego Fabra has much grander ambitions for the future of GAA in Catalonia.
“One of my dreams was to, because there’s no Catalan national team, I wanted to create a national team and go out and play the World Cup in Dubai,” Fabra says. Irish teams are prohibited from competing in the World Cup, as Fabra says “they are too good,” but nevertheless he wants to bring his team of Catalans to compete for the honors.
“That was my plan, unfortunately, it didn’t happen because Covid stopped everything, but I’m still thinking we’ll make it some day.”