Alexandre San Martin Costa's zeal of the converted
By John Harrington
When Alexandre San Martin Costa watched his first game of Gaelic Football in 2012 it was a life-changing experience.
He was part of a cultural association that helped organise an ‘international’ match between a team from his native Galicia in Spain and Brittany in France, but until the ball was thrown in he didn’t quite know what to expect.
When you consider that less than eight years later he was appointed Gaelic Games Europe’s Coaching and Games Development Officer, it’s fair to say the Gaelic Games bug bit him bad.
After that match between Galicia and Brittany he returned home to his native Santiago de Compostela with the zeal of a convert, determined to establish a GAA club there.
“When I saw Gaelic Football for the first time that day I just fell in love with the game,” Sanmartin Costa told GAA.ie
“Myself and most of my friends played together on a soccer team so I asked them if they want to play Gaelic Football.
“So they asked me, "What's that? What's Gaelic Football?" So I showed them a few videos on YouTube and they liked the game so we transformed our soccer club into a Gaelic Football Club.
“In Galicia by that time there were three or four clubs and we played in a small league among these four clubs and we won our first game and the players were like, "Okay, we have to continue, this game is amazing!" So that's how it started.”
“Gaelic Football has a lot of skills related with soccer and basketball so it was quite easy for us to adapt or at least to try to play.
“At the start we were very amateur and playing something only similar to Gaelic football because at the beginning we played a mixture of Gaelic football and soccer. At the beginning we didn't know all the skills well so sometimes we used soccer skills but after only one year we started to play real Gaelic football.
“We started to play against Irish players in the Iberian championship, we started to watch more videos, read and learn about the rules, and that's how we started to get better.”
Sanmartin Costa’s club, Estrela Vermelha, quickly established themselves as the dominant force in the Galician League and have grown stronger year on year.
With players who are all born and bred Galicians, they now more than hold their own against teams stacked with Irish players across the Iberian penisula and beyond.
“In the Iberian championship we have reached the final several times. But Madrid is the strongest team here as most of their players are Irish. They have beaten us in the final several times, but we are close to them. Hopefully in the near future we can beat them.
“All of our team are locals, all of them are Galicians. Most of them from my city of Santiago de Compostela.
“The standard is getting better. Last year we had almost 50 men in the club for the summer. We had two teams in the league, an A team and a B team. Also we have the women's team and we started last year with the kids.”
When a shoulder injury prevented Sanmartin Costa from playing the game for a period, he decided to coach the team instead and quickly found he had a flair for it.
He completed his Foundation Award and Award 1 coaching courses in Galicia and then a tutor coaching course with Leinster GAA through Colm Clear and Gerard O’Connor.
He was then invited to Down by Ulster GAA’s Coach Development Manager, Roger Keenan, where he completed his Award 2 coaching course which set him on the path to becoming Gaelic Games Europe’s Coaching and Games Development Officer last year.
“I love coaching," he says. "Once I'm on the pitch I forget about everything. All the problems, your work, your life, everything.
“I concentrate on the on the on the game, the drills, so I forget about everything.”
The timing of the Coronavirus pandemic couldn’t have been worse from Sanmartin Costa’s point of view because it has limited the work he has been able to do in his role.
Webinars are a very useful tool, but from a coaching point of view nothing beats getting boots on pitches and interacting with fellow coaches and players face to face.
The challenge for the European board is that they are responsible for such a sprawling geographic area that is now divided into five divisions – Benelux, Central East, North West, Iberia, and Nordics.
Each division has a coaching officer that Sanmartin Costa works with, and he is also responsible for a tutor coaching group that runs coaching courses and clinics.
Coaching is particularly crucial in Europe because new clubs are springing up all the time (there are now 90 on the continent) and are increasingly made up of players who are totally new to gaelic football and hurling.
“The game is rapidly growing in Europe and mainly that growth has been among natives starting to play gaelic football and hurling,” says Sanmartin Costa.
“Every year we have more natives and we now play a European Cup for natives where you have teams from all over Europe coming together for one weekend, and they play a type of nations cup.
“We have a lot of Irish people in Europe playing Gaelic Games, but, at the same time, more and more natives playing every year.
“For example, in France, they have a lot of players, over 1,000 (native) players and around 25 clubs and every year they have more and more natives playing which is great to see.”
More and more European clubs now have juvenile teams too, and Sanmartin Costa believes that a focus on coaching and development at underage level will be what drives the next acceleration in the game’s growth on the continent.
“Here in Galicia we have a generation of players now but in five years we will need another generation,” he says.
“So, we have to work on that. We have to work like five or six years in advance. We have to create now this generation for five years later.
“Because in five years this current generation of players won't be playing anymore because they'll be too old so we have to get ready for that moment and work now on bringing through the next generation. So that's where we are putting all of our efforts.
“We're trying to introduce Gaelic Games into the schools in Galicia and in Brittany they already have a plan for introducing Gaelic games into the schools.
“It is a big project, it is a very good project. Brittany sometimes acts as our big brother because they started earlier than us.
“We see what they do because they are quite similar to us in that they have all native players so we always look at what they do and try to follow in their footsteps.
“They have a very good project about working in schools and we would like to do the same. But just in this moment with the coronavirus situation it is difficult, but we have big plans for the future.
“I'm personally working on a book with another coach in Galicia which will focus on secondary schools and teach young players the story of Gaelic Games, how it has developed in Galicia, and some skills and drills. It would be mainly for PE teachers, that's just another idea we have for promoting the game.”
If you have a good product then people will buy it, but is there more to the growth of Gaelic Games in Europe than the simple fact that gaelic football and hurling are great sports?
“In my experience in Galicia it is due to three main themes,” says Sanmartin Costa.
“First, Gaelic football is a sport that sounds quite similar to soccer, so it gets your attention straight away when you first hear about it.
“Secondly, because of the culture. In Galicia our culture is related to the celtic culture and have somewhat similar celtic roots and traditions and culture.
“And, finally, probably because of the opportunity Gaelic Games gives you to play for a Galician team.
“The Galician team is the selection of the best players in Galicia and we compete against other countries in the World Games.
“And for Galicians to put on the jersey of Galicia is just the best feeling. Those who do it feel very, very proud to represent Galicia. The jersey of Galicia represents so much for us.
“So I think these three things are the most important things for getting players involved in Galica.”
For human beings there are few more important needs than feeling like you are part of a community.
That is why the GAA is such a positive force in Irish society, and, increasingly, beyond these shores too.
Pride in the jersey is what it’s all about whether you’re from Galway or Galicia.