Ulster champions may feel like they are taking on the United Nations when they face Brussels-based Craobh Rua in All-Ireland JFC quarter-final in Maastricht
Safe to say, this fixture stood out in the list issued by the Ladies Gaelic Football Association earlier this week:
“All-Ireland Junior Club Championship – quarter-final: Craobh Rua (Belgium) v Castleblayney Faughs (Monaghan), 11am CET/10am GMT, Maastricht, Holland.”
Blayney v Belgium, then, is one of the year’s quirkier sporting contests, and while the bulk of the Monaghan players come from in or around the town, the list of home places of some of the Belgian panel will make them feel like they’re taking on the United Nations.
Deep breath: Kiltimagh, Johannesburg, Newbridge, Andalucía, Roosky, Nantes, Killeshandra, Adelaide, Maynooth, Copenhagen, Kilrush, Athens, Dungourney, Gothenburg, Lucan, São Paulo, Ballina, Maryland . . . . even the mighty Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh could struggle, over the course of a mere 60 minutes, to squeeze in the biographical details of that group.
He would, though, no doubt, point out that half of those places are not Gaelic football strongholds.
But there has been a distinct international flavour to Belgium GAA – or Craobh Rua, the ‘Red Branch’ – since the club was founded in 2003, a women’s section added to the set-up five years later when Dubliner Barbara Wynne tired of having to travel to the Netherlands to get her fix of Gaelic football.
From the off, they attracted an array of nationalities, many of them team-mates of Belgian-based Irish women in other sports, like basketball, soccer, netball and handball, all of them intrigued by this peculiar spectacle that seemed to be a hybrid of all those codes.
“Most of them are just natural at sport, so they adapted really quickly,” says Belgium midfielder Jenny Moore, a former Kildare minor footballer who now works in the European Parliament.
“Although some of them were double-hopping at the start, so it took time to get the hang of it,” she laughs.
Now, she says, there are few more committed to the cause than the ‘non-Irish’, seven of whom were in the starting line-up for the victory over British champions Hugh O’Neills in Leeds the weekend before last, the result that earned them this meeting with the Ulster champions.
An example of that commitment? Look no further than the team’s Greek goalkeeper Elena Postantzi.
“When we found out that we had to go to the UK to play Hugh O’Neills, Elena realised that her passport had expired,” says Moore.
“There was no appointment available in the Greek embassy in Brussels until April, so her only option was to fly to Greece to get it renewed, so she flew from Lille to Athens on a red-eye flight. Their passport office runs on a first-come-first-served basis, so her father started queuing for her early in the morning. She got her passport and flew back to Brussels via Crete on the same day because she had to be back in work next morning.”
“Greece will not send passports by post so, Elena had to go back to Athens the following week to collect it. So she flew to Greece from Charleroi on the red-eye, collected the passport, flew to Manchester on the same day, on to Leeds, the train strikes complicating things, all just in the nick of time to keep a clean sheet in our match against Hugh O’Neills the next day.”
You’d be exhausted just reading that.
The last time Belgium reached this stage of the competition was eight years ago, when they became the first continental Europe-based club to achieve the feat.
Moore credits manager Cosmos Gilmore, the Longford man whose CV includes leading the Galway men’s’ under-20 side to All-Ireland success in 2020, for the team’s progress this year.
“Before Cosmos arrived, we kind of trained ourselves. But then he moved to Belgium and was looking for a team to coach – we were the lucky team to get him. He brought way more intensity to our training sessions and I think he has brought us up a level.”
“After we beat Hugh O’Neills, he told us that Castleblayney would be a different, much tougher challenge. We’d be coming up against a club, a proper parish team. But as Anay Rios said, our team is our own parish, our bond is just as tight.”
Rios, from Andalucía in Spain, was on that original 2008 team, since then winning 12 European titles, Belgium by far the dominant force in the women’s game on the continent.
“But the growth in the women’s game around Europe has been huge,” says Moore, “there are around 100 clubs now in 24, 25 countries, there are new clubs coming on the scene every year.
“Warsaw, for example, has quite a big club because there are a lot of people there studying veterinary. We have a lot players who work for the EU or in the private sector, so that’s where most of our panel come from.”
“Our club is entirely player-run, our whole committee is made up of players, and we have around 50 now across football and camogie. Marla Candon [ex Roscommon and Foxrock Cabinteely] is our chairperson and captain this year, and I’m involved in organising the travel to games and tournaments.”
While the club receives a grant from the LGFA for the travel and accommodation costs accrued by their involvement in the All-Ireland club championship, they have to stump up themselves for their European competition through the year, their travels taking them to tournaments in France, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark and beyond.
“Yeah, but we love it,” says Moore, dismissing any talk of financial hardship.
“It’s a lovely community, it’s a bit of Ireland away from home, most of my friends in Brussels now are people I met at the club. We all hang out together, some of us live together, if we need help with anything – accommodation, job-hunting, putting up a visiting friend, whatever – we’re all there for each other in our WhatsApp group. We’ve bonded as friends off the pitch as much as we have on it. If you don’t have family here, it becomes your family.”
All they lack, for now, is a pitch big enough to host All-Ireland championship games, hence the need to make the one-hour journey to Maastricht to take on Castleblayney, their pitch at their Celtic Rugby Club base in Brussels not the required size.
The odds are firmly against them, Moore conceding that “once you go out of Europe, the level is much higher – it’ll be very hard on Sunday. But we were underdogs in Leeds and managed to pull off the win, so we’ll be hoping to do it again”.
The parish of Brussels will, then, give it a crack against Blayney.