Gaelic Games Europe's Coaching and Games Development Officer, Alexandre San Martin Costa, pictured coaching a Gaelic football session in Katsikas refugee camp in Greece.
Gaelic Games Europe's Coaching and Games Development Officer, Alexandre San Martin Costa, pictured coaching a Gaelic football session in Katsikas refugee camp in Greece. 

Alex Sanmartin Costa brings Gaelic football to refugees


By John Harrington

He’s home in Galicia now, but you get the feeling that Alex Sanmartin Costa left a small part of himself behind in Katsikas refugee camp in Greece.

Gaelic Games Europe’s Coaching and Games Development Officer spent the month of September there as a volunteer coaching Gaelic football to refugees, and the experience left a mark on him.

He developed a great rapport with the refugees he coached, so it was difficult to leave when his month was up and say goodbye to them.

“The experience was good but at the same time tough because you know these people are really suffering,” Costa told GAA.ie

“It was a humbling experience because you know they have serious problems and it's difficult to face the reality that they are suffering.

“In the same area there were three camps, it's not just one. One of them is for people that have some possibilities of continuing and going on to Europe. Then there is another camp for kids who don't have parents. There is another one then for people with no kind of papers. So they are stuck there.

“I know it was for only a month, but while I was there I was really, really happy despite the situation.

“We didn't have a proper pitch, we trained on a piece of land that was full of stones and things like that. But had fun and really enjoyed ourselves which is the most important thing when you talk about sport.”

Some of the participants in the Gaelic football coaching sessions organised by Alexandre San Martin Costa. 
Some of the participants in the Gaelic football coaching sessions organised by Alexandre San Martin Costa. 

The vast majority of the refugees he coached were people from Afghanistan who had fled the repressive Taliban regime.

Over the last number of years volunteers have coached them in sports such as soccer, basketball, boxing, and volleyball, but Gaelic football was something entirely new.

“They never heard about it and at the first training I only had eight people so I decided to change the name from Gaelic football to Irish football so then they could more easily identify it was a type of football played in one country,” says Costa.

“I started doing promotions in the camps of the training sessions and every day I got more and more players. One the last day I had 35 people. So I started with eight and finished with 35.”

Alexandre San Martin Costa pictured explaining some of the skills of Gaelic football to refugees in Katsikas camp. 
Alexandre San Martin Costa pictured explaining some of the skills of Gaelic football to refugees in Katsikas camp. 

Many of those who took part proved themselves to be quick learners with a natural aptitude for Gaelic football, and Costa hopes that at least some of them will get to enjoy the sport again in the future.

“There were some boys who improved their skills just so quickly. A few of them asked the organisation whether they could continue playing after I left because they liked the game so much.

“After training they would watch videos on YouTube of Gaelic football matches. And at the training sessions they'd ask for tips on how to improve.

“When I was leaving they were really sad because they wanted to continue learning.

“What I proposed to them was that if they have the opportunity of going to a European Country, like, for example, Germany or France, that they could continue playing Gaelic football because we have clubs there.

“I showed them a map of GAA clubs in Europe they could join if they moved to those areas. As well as giving them the opportunity to continue playing Gaelic football, it would also be a good way to get to know people in a new city.

“They already know the game, they already know the skills, and they can make friends by joining these clubs.

The Gaelic football coaching sessions were a big hit amongst the children in Katsikas refugee camp. 
The Gaelic football coaching sessions were a big hit amongst the children in Katsikas refugee camp. 

Costa also coached refugees aged from eight to ten in the children’s refugee camp where his priority was to put as many smiles on faces as he could.

“They're in a really tough situation,” he says. “They're stuck there, maybe for years, and they don't have anything to do.

“So while I was there I tried to organise trainings where I put the focus on having fun and playing games more so than knowing all the rules of Gaelic football.

“So it was getting them to come to training and just have some fun. Of course we introduced the skills of the games too, but the most important thing for them was to have fun.”

Costa hopes that other GAA coaches will now follow his lead and choose to volunteer in Katsikas refugee camp or another like it.

“Yes, I do, because I think sport is more than playing for Leagues, Cups, or even the All-Irelands,” he says.

“Sport is also about sharing knowledge, sharing fun, and to help other people that are suffering.

“This year I'm going to continue as coaching officer for Europe and I'm going to try to continue this new path of trying to get in contact with all associations and to help other people as much as I can.”