In Ireland, Gaelic football is the only game in town


The biggest crowd in Europe on Saturday was not watching detached professionals kissing the badge of their latest football team, but at the All-Ireland Gaelic football final.

Two amateur teams, Dublin and Mayo, fought it out for the coveted All-Ireland trophy in a replay following a rare draw two weeks ago.

Every year players from 32 counties across Ireland, plus teams of emigrants in London and New York, compete for the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) Sam McGuire Cup.

On Saturday evening, fans from all over the globe crammed into Dublin’s 82,300-capacity Croke Park, some having paid many multiples of the 60 euros ($67) ticket price.

“The All-Ireland final will beat any World Cup final or European final, trust me,” says former Manchester United and Ireland football captain Roy Keane.

“It’s about local pride, that’s what GAA is ?- people representing their parishes and the streets where they grew up.

“Gaelic football in Ireland is different. They don’t move clubs when they get fed up. They represent the people they’re brought up with.”

Ireland’s national sport mixes the pace, power and skill-sets of football, rugby and basketball.

Encounters are typically bruising affairs where fouls can be difficult to define. It is not a sport for the faint of heart.

The pitch is similar to a rugby union pitch, but larger, while the goals at each end are H-shaped with football-style goal nets extending behind them.

The scoring is relatively simple: three points for a goal and one if the ball, which is like a standard football only slightly smaller, is kicked or punched over the bar and between the posts.

Dublin confirmed their status as pre-match favourites with a narrow 18-17 victory, giving them a second successive All-Ireland triumph.

The game was on a knife-edge until the last minute. Dublin were a point ahead and Mayo had the chance to equalise from a free-kick, only for Cillian O’Connor to shoot wide.

Mayo, a county on the western seaboard, have not lifted the trophy since 1951.

– ‘Here to witness history’ –

It was the first replay in 16 years and was worth more than three million euros to the GAA coffers.

In the first game, Mayo snatched a draw deep in additional time, but many analysts believed they deserved to have won, prompting much discussion of ‘the curse’ that supposedly hangs over the county.

The story goes that the last time Mayo won the trophy in 1951 they failed to pay their respects while passing a funeral as they went through the county on a victorious homecoming journey.

As a result, a priest apparently warned that Mayo would never win another All-Ireland until all of them had died. Two of that team are still alive.

Speculation that tickets might be easier to come by second time around turned out to be wishful thinking.

Fans of both counties dressed in the blue of Dublin and red and green of Mayo clogged the streets and bars of Dublin from early Saturday morning, many scouting for spare tickets.

Sipping a pre-match pint of Guinness at the Big Tree pub near Croke Park, Sean Duffy, 51, from the little village of Louisburgh in Mayo, told AFP he would likely “endure more than enjoy” the match.

“I’m here to witness history,” he said. “Many a man hasn’t lived long enough to see this day so I have to be here in case we do it today.”

Few stadiums wear their heart on their sleeves quite like Croke Park, the stands of which are named after Irish patriots.

It was the scene of what became known as Bloody Sunday, when British troops drove into the stadium during a match in 1920 and massacred 14 people in response to shootings by the IRA (Irish Republican Army).

One terrace, Hill 16, was built from the rubble of the 1916 Easter Rising, the catalyst for independence from Britain.

The country came to a standstill on Saturday evening. Almost one million people watched the first match — 70 percent of the Irish viewing public.

Generations of expats joined them in some of the furthest flung corners of the world.

Paul Gorman, 50, a banking official from Dublin, said that as a returned emigrant from England, he relished every opportunity to support the capital team in a final.

“I used to have to watch from afar because of work commitments while I was away, so I wouldn’t miss this for the world now that I’m home,” he says. “There is simply no better place to be.”

© 2016 AFP

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