Gaelic football has not risen to the same international popularity as regular football or soccer, but it has a strong and devoted following in many places outside Ireland. In Africa, the sport is rarely heard of, let alone played. That makes it even more impressive that an entire South African team qualified for the inaugural Gaelic Athletic Association Games in an unlikely location — Abu Dhabi.
Gaelic football aims at a more open kind of play, and as such falls between rugby and soccer. A form of football derived from traditional Irish ball games, Gaelic football is played between two teams of 15 players. Players score by passing the ball through the other team’s goals (3 points) or a set of two upright posts separated by a crossbar 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) above the ground (1 point).
Here are 12 things you didn’t know about Africa’s only professional Gaelic football team.
Sources: BreakingNews.ie, IrishTimes.com, GAA.ie, Independent.ie, Joe.ie, SA-Gaels.co.za
Since its inception in 2010, the South African Gaelic Sports Association, or SAGSA, has aimed to become the largest non-Irish Gaelic Athletic Association community in the world. The nonprofit arm of the organization was established in November 2013 to promote the sport throughout South Africa.
The Gaels are made up of players from the townships of Johannesburg, and are the only all-African GAA team in the world. Including those who do not travel internationally with the professional team, more than 300 members are involved in South Africa – a mix of Irish, South African, Zimbabwean, and expatriate players.
The majority of the Gaels training takes place at venues in Pretoria and Northern Johannesburg, in the Gauteng region of South Africa. The season runs from October to April, but the team is organizing to play all year round.
2015 is the first year that both men’s and women’s South African teams traveled to Ireland to do Gaelic Athletic Association training, and later headed to Abu Dhabi for the GAA World Games.
To prepare for the Gaelic Athletic Association World Games, the men’s and women’s Gaels team traveled to training sessions across Ireland, mainly in Dublin and Mayo, and participated in boot camps, test matches, and cultural activities.
Ireland-based ESB International, an international energy company and engineering consultancy, is one of the biggest sponsors of the Gaels. ESB is responsible for sponsoring the South African team’s tour of Ireland, as well as part of its appearance in the Gaelic Athletic Association World Games.
Due to the similarities between the two games, many Gaels players use Gaelic football as a way to stay in shape during the offseason for Australian-rules football. While some see it as an opportunity to further their training, others hope that Gaelic football will become popular enough in South Africa to warrant a full time position, and require year-round training.
Through its Grass Roots Development Programme, the SAGSA plans to establish Gaelic Sports Development Centres in the Johannesburg townships of Tembisa and Alexandra, and later expand into the country’s major population centers including Durban, Cape Town, and Pretoria. While much of the goal will be to find and train promising young players, it will also serve underprivileged communities and “instill within players an understanding and an appreciation of the GAA in Ireland and abroad.”
Steven “Papi” Malingaer, a GAA player, said, “Gaelic football gives you leadership qualities that you can take off the park and into life, such as commitment and focus. This is important in my community; so many people struggle to live a positive life because of poverty and crime. I feel like I am a positive role model and I like taking my experiences and passing them on to the generations coming up behind me.”
Through its programs across South African townships, SAGSA hopes to reach underprivileged South African youth and provide opportunities. According to its development objectives, it wants to “improve, through team sports and familiarization, the ‘employability’ of South African youth with sponsors and associated companies.”
Though it’s a bit arbitrary to decide what jersey is the best, many have tagged the South African kit as one of the coolest in the world. Using the colorful South African flag as its base, the team’s jersey makes them one of the most fashionable teams, if not one of the most traditional, on the pitch.
With the increasing popularity of Gaelic football in South Africa, SAGSA sees an opportunity to further its program in Africa. It hopes to one day establish a South African or African Gaelic Games league, bringing Gaelic sports to new corners of the globe.