(Ed’s note: the Belgian Ladies Footballers formed the majority contingent of the European team competing in the Ladies All-Ireland Sevens Chamionship.)
The sun shone valiantly down on the pitches of Naomh Mearnog GAA club in Portmarnock, on the last Saturday of September. It is hard to tell if it was the faint heat emanating from this sun that warmed the faces of the 50+ teams scattered throughout the GAA complex, or the blood, sweat and tears that are part and parcel of any sporting tournament, not least the All-Ireland Ladies Football Sevens.
For most players, the day alone was pressure enough, but for one little band of warriors, dressed in their blue starred kit, the journey to Portmarnock was an Odyssey of sorts. The Belgian ladies (Barbara, Caoimhe, Grainne, Mide and Sylvia) struggled through delayed Ryanair flights from Charleroi and strikes by the handlers of bags in Zaventum; Ange and Vanessa took the scenic route to the Sevens, stopping off in Copenhagen for a few months en route; their Danish team-mate, Annika, is half-Corkonian, so she has already battled and won against adversity in life; Silvia, from Barcelona via Munich, travels 200km every week just to train; and Monica, who travels everywhere in Europe it seems, for the love of the sport. In Dublin, Team Europe was joined by Belgium GAA friends, Orla and Deirdre (with a significantly shorter distance to travel, but no less appreciated), and Maria Brosnan, defender of democracy and aggressor of full-back lines everywhere, striking fear in the hearts of goal-keepers and No campaigners alike. On the sideline, Tony Bass, in a non-refereeing role, and his son Conor, prepared for a managerial day, while keeping an eye on those suspected of potential jersey-pilferage. They know who they are.
And so, under the flag of Europe, united in their diversity, the ladies took to the pitches. Europe A faced a challenge in the pitch itself, unique in its dramatic gradient, which called to mind a snowless ski-slope more than anything else. But they did not let this affect them, with such attackers as Mide, Cuba and Grainne sprinting up and down the hill in a mountain goat-like manner. Others, your correspondent included, preferred the tried-and-tested tactic of hoofing the ball into the forward line, where Barbara and Maria were well-placed to pop it over or under the bar. Lacking in substitutes (essential in a Sevens tournament) for the first couple of matches, due to Europe B playing on a far-distant pitch, the goalkeeping position, shared between Orla, Deirdre and Mide, served as a substitute bench. Facing teams from Wicklow, Tipperary and Offaly, Europe A started off on a high note – winning, then drawing, then losing a match, before collapsing on the grass for a well-earned break.
Europe B were under as much pressure, if not more, due to the fact that for two matches they were playing with only six constant players, borrowing a goalkeeper from another team. Europe A joined in as much as possible, but clashing matches meant that the A ladies were either absent or exhausted on the pitch. Nonetheless, with the dynamic Aussie duo, the Barcelona beauties and the Danish demoiselle, and with Orla and Deirdre legging it between pitches, they acquitted themselves with aplomb against teams from Kildare, Cavan, Wexford and Cork. They finished their last match in time to join Europe A in their final match of the day.
All concerned knew that this was as far as it could go – there was no getting out of the group. The most they could do was to mess it all up for the last team from Tyrone. There should be no hard and fast route to the top, and if Strabane Sigersons were going to go on into the semi-final and possibly the final, Europe was not going to make it easy for them. From the first to the last blow of the whistle, Europe were on top of every ball, kicking points from impossible angles, blocking balls destined to be buried in the back of the net, stealing passes and generally running Sigersons into the ground. It was no longer Europe A/B, it was Europe, as everyone pitched in to bring the team to victory by a single point, a similar win to that of Cork over Dublin the following day in the All-Ireland Ladies Football final. Victory is at its best in steps, every achievement bringing a team or an individual closer to greatness. Maybe next year we can take another leap forward.