Ruben Lebonan of Galicia celebrates after scoring a goal against Argentina during the Etihad Airways GAA World Games.

Ruben Lebonan of Galicia celebrates after scoring a goal against Argentina during the Etihad Airways GAA World Games.

Gaelic Football capturing the imagination in Galicia

*By Cian O'Connell *

A weekend packed with high profile GAA matches beckons, but several hundred people are expected to gather in Ourense on Saturday for two Gaelic Football fixtures, mens and ladies, between Galicia and France.

Televisión de Galicia (TVG) will broadcast both matches live adding another layer of excitement for those involved. What makes these fixtures particularly interesting is the fact that the two panels are packed with natives.

“There is pretty much no Irish involved at all in the playing staff or coaching staff,” European GAA Board Chairman Brian Sheehy explains.

“This would be our second biggest international match we have seen apart from the World Games. Back in November 2014 France played Italy in mens and ladies matches in Toulouse. That was the last big international we have had. There was no TV coverage or anything like that at that one. I was at the matches myself, it was a great spectacle, this one is a whole different ball game because there is TV involved.

“Galicia are self sustained, it is only locals involved really, there are almost like a proper county at home in Ireland. They have their weekly fixtures, they travel up the road, play their match and then go home. Most European GAA is tournament based, I still play myself luckily enough, I live in Munich, in three weeks time I'm heading to Vienna and will play maybe six half hour matches in a day.

“That is why the likes of Galicia and Brittany are special in that way, they are closely connected to Ireland with the Celtic connection. We believe that is why it thrives so much, they really identify with Gaelic Sports generally.”

It is an exciting venture for all associated with European GAA and Sheehy laughs about the fact that a media deal had to be struck so the match can be broadcast. “We have been telling Croke Park for years that this is going to grow and to explode,” Sheehy says. “We have just been waiting for the next step and I believe it now. I've already spoken to Paraic Duffy and Pat Daly in Croke Park, they are aware of it and we get nothing, but praise from Croke Park. This is just a sign of the next step, it is now becoming popular.

“It isn't just a case of a couple of guys playing, it is becoming popular. Galicia is special because of the Celtic connection, they have a strong sense of identity. They do identify it as their Celtic tradition, it is only natural that if it becomes popular media are going to pick up on it.

“That is what has happened. In fairness to them they came to us, they wanted to negotiate a media rights deal with the Galician broadcaster so we sent them various information with the help of Croke Park.

“A media rights contract between us, the TV station, the divisional committee in Galicia, all that has been done officially and is signed. It got very serious very quickly. I didn't envisage myself having to sign media contracts during my term as the European chair, but there you go.”

Gaelic Games has increased in popularity in Galicia with more clubs being formed in the area. “People have probably heard about the soccer team Deportivo La Coruna, there are two GAA clubs in the town of La Coruna. There is a university team and a normal club team in Coruna, some of the other towns along the coast have them.

“In Galicia there is a high concentration of clubs, maybe 10 or 12 clubs in an area maybe the size of Meath or a bit bigger. Everywhere is within driving distance, a couple of hours maximum from one end to the other. They pick their team from these clubs, just like a county team at home. France would be similar even though France would be a lot more spread out of course.

“They'd still have a high number of clubs. They got to the final of the World Games. They are totally self sustained.”

The Galicians stay in constant contact with European GAA, but Sheehy is delighted by how the sport is developing. “We are still the County Board, they are just a sub division of ours essentially. European GAA - we are divided up into regions just for competition purposes. Galicia would be part of the Spanish-Iberian region, but because they have such a concentration they have set up a sub division there.

“They have their own internal competitions like county competitions and they will still travel to Barcelona, Madrid or Valencia or wherever for the three or four big Iberian competitions on top of their own internal competitions. They play League, Championship and they play a knockout Cup exactly like in Ireland essentially, but they still partake in the traditional European blitz formats as well.”

Why has there been such a sudden surge with television stations now showing a willingness to broadcast Saturday’s games? “It is very hard to put my finger on it, but about six or seven years ago one of the guys in Coruna, Wences Garcia Zapata was in Ireland, he went to Croke Park,” Sheehy remarks.

“He brought back a football, he knew the Celtic tradition. He started kicking about, got a team formed in La Coruna. Slowly, but surely it took off. At first there was maybe four or five clubs. Now you have multiple new clubs every year, it is a rivalry of sorts.

“Rivalry has bred the growth. One town sees another doing it and think why can't we do it. That is basically why it has grown, it has become a very healthy competition and it would be strong.”

Ultimately it means the best footballers in Galicia and France, one of the stories of last year’s Etihad World Games, collide. Sheehy reckons a healthy crowd will be in attendance to provide an ideal backdrop for those watching on television. “Even when they have had their Championship matches like County Finals essentially, they'd have 500 or 600 people,” Sheehy started.

“We don't have GAA pitches in Europe, we have one or two, they wouldn't so all the matches would be 11 a side on a soccer pitch with GAA goals. They get the use of city stadia, they'd have proper stands in them. They make quite a noise. I'd imagine the atmosphere this weekend will be excellent.”