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Gaelic football brings together Slovaks and expats

A local group of expats and Slovaks have brought Ireland’s “national pastime,” Gaelic football, to Bratislava. The Slovak Shamrocks Gaelic Athletic Association formed in 2011 after members of the Irish expat community and the Irish Chamber of Commerce got together to discuss the possibility of a club. Now, 31 players of 11 different nationalities make up the men’s football team, and 16 players of eight different nationalities make up the women’s team, which formed in February 2013.

(Source: Christy Vollbrecht)

A local group of expats and Slovaks have brought Ireland’s “national pastime,” Gaelic football, to Bratislava. The Slovak Shamrocks Gaelic Athletic Association formed in 2011 after members of the Irish expat community and the Irish Chamber of Commerce got together to discuss the possibility of a club. Now, 31 players of 11 different nationalities make up the men’s football team, and 16 players of eight different nationalities make up the women’s team, which formed in February 2013.

The mixture of nationalities and backgrounds is what makes a club like the Shamrocks great, said manager Shane Crean.

“We have a lot of professional people, working 9-5, business owners, etc., and there’s also a core group of local Slovaks mixed with students as well, so we have a very international flavour,” he said during a recent interview.

Simply put, Gaelic football, Ireland’s most popular sport, is a hybrid of soccer, rugby and basketball. The game is played with a round, leather ball similar to a football, but heavier. It may be kicked or hand passed during the game, and there are two ways of scoring — over the crossbar for 1 point, or into the goal for 3 points. The sport has been a tradition in Ireland for more than 125 years. The different village teams serve as a strong source of pride for their supporters, much like different hockey teams in Slovakia do.

A combination of both experienced Gaelic football players and newcomers to the game make up the Slovak Shamrocks. The men’s and women’s teams practice together about twice a week in locations throughout Bratislava. Practices serve not only as a way to improve skill level, but also to catch up with friends. Players regularly go out for a beer together after practices at Goblins Pub.

Conor Mulloy, an Irish expat, played Gaelic as a boy, but picked it back up when he moved to Bratislava and heard about the Shamrocks. The team is both a social outlet and a way to get exercise, he said.

“It’s a social team and we sometimes say ‘It’s a drinking club with an Irish football problem,’ so we like to have fun, we like to have a party afterwards,” Mulloy said in a recent interview. “It’s actually kind of funny, I’d be very competitive and very serious about things, but when I play with the Shamrocks … we’re having fun as well as being competitive in games and training, but it’s a lot less serious than most sports, which I really like.”

The rookie women’s team, which recently competed in its first tournament in Munich, is the big “success story” for the club this year, Crean said. In Munich, the women’s team placed fourth, and forward Anne-Mari Vauhkonen was awarded Player of the Tournament.

Women’s team captain Sarah Cook, an expat from England, remembers the first practice in February when a few players timidly showed up to practice one Saturday morning. Cook said the team has improved and grown so much in just a few months that she is excited to see what happens in the future.

The ladies hope to recruit as many players as possible, no matter the skill level, she said.

“There are lots of rules that go hand-in-hand with playing, but don’t be put off. Now is an ideal time to learn the game, as it’s still so new to all of us,” she said.

Crean said the club gets about two new players per practice, but one of the main goals is to continue recruiting more Slovaks.

“If we could slowly get to a stage where the club is at 25 to 30 percent Slovaks within its members, I think that’s what we need to achieve within the next two to three years,” he said.

Eventually, the club hopes to host a larger regional tournament in Bratislava, and to build the programme to include youth teams, Crean said.

The Shamrocks compete in about six tournaments throughout Central Europe per season, culminating in the Pan European Championship in Athlone, Ireland, in October. The last tournament was in Vienna on June 15.

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