The remarkable rise of multicultural Belgium GAA to an All-Ireland quarter-final

The original article featured on The (Emma Duffy)

Marla Candon tells the team’s story as all roads lead to Maastricht in Holland for Sunday’s showdown against Monaghan side Castleblaney.

THERE WAS, INDEED, a real sense this was a massive achievement.

Craobh Rua of Belgium, or Belgium GAA, booked an unlikely All-Ireland ladies club football junior championship quarter-final spot after a 2-6 to 0-8 victory away to Leeds outfit Hugh O’Neills two weeks ago.

Next up is a showdown against Ulster champions Castleblaney Faughs of Monaghan in Maastricht, Holland, on Sunday morning.

“People can’t get over it,” chairperson, current captain and star forward Marla Candon beams. “And I think Leeds got a fierce auld shock as well!”

Belgium GAA is one of two clubs in the country, and one of the biggest in Europe, competing across men’s and ladies Gaelic football, along with hurling and camogie.

Candon hails from Roscommon. A former inter-county player with the Rossies and captain of Dublin club heavyweights Foxrock-Cabinteely — along with the 2007 TG4 Underdogs — Candon was seconded to Belgium for work, and is the assistant deputy director of The European School in Brussels. 

A latecomer to Gaelic football — “I only picked it up at the age of 24 or 25,” she explains, recalling her early days teaching in Hollypark — basketball is her first sport. Like several involved with the club. More on that shortly.

Speaking to a Leeds player after the preliminary clash, the pair discovered they had played against one another in the ’07 All-Ireland junior club semi-final, Candon for Fox-Cab, her opponent for Latton of Monaghan.

“What is it now? Jesus, 15 years later,” she grins.

“When I left in 2015 and came to Belgium, my last game for Foxrock-Cabinteely was a senior All-Ireland semi-final against Donaghmoyne. I suppose I left football at the top level. Coming over here, I was well in my late 30s at that stage, so it was nice to step away from… although I missed it, it was very intense with work so I couldn’t give as much time as I wanted to to football.

“Playing football in this way allowed me to travel and meet new people, but it also allowed for someone who is supremely mad about sport and loves to play at a high level to kind of gracefully bow out or find another level.

“And then to have another challenge in bringing others on. Now, in the real twilight of my career, to be in a position where we’re in an All-Ireland quarter-final is just phenomenal… phenomenal.”

A tweet went around after that monumental victory in England saying it was ground-breaking — the first-ever win by a European ladies football side in the All-Ireland club championships.

Turns out it wasn’t, but the height of the achievement remains.

“We had won a preliminary round before, apparently in 2014, according to Anay Rios, who’s been on the team for a number of years,” Candon explains.

“She predates me, she’s a Spanish girl. But in my lifetime, we’ve played Birmingham, Glasgow and then another London team. Twice, we travelled to the UK. And once, we had a team come over to us and we’ve never never got any further.

“There’s been an appetite for competition after the two years of Covid. We’re unbeaten in all the tournaments we go to, but girls aren’t used to playing 15-a-side. Against Leeds, it was like, ‘There’s no expectations here. Just go and enjoy yourselves and try to be better than your marker.’ The result was not expected. But at the same time, the capabilities are there. It was brilliant.

“The Irish on the team know how important it is, and the non-Irish went to huge lengths as well to be part of it. The efforts that the team have gone to is just phenomenal. They’ve spent a lot of money to be involved, and all the travel. Ah, it’s just brilliant.”

Belgium GAA generally play nine-a-side, with Longford man Cosmos Gilmore at the helm. “Cosmos is superb, and he adapted a style of play for us for 9s, but it was evident even in the way we play in 15s – support play and running off the shoulder. His handprint is on the team, and he’s part of the reason we’ve done so well this season.”

Of the 19 players that featured in Leeds, just eight are Irish. Roscommon, Kerry, Mayo, Cavan, Meath, Kildare, and Laois were all represented. Where else? Belgium, of course, and then there’s Greece, France, Spain, Denmark, South Africa, Spain, Australia and Sweden. Multicultural, to say the very least.

“Anyone who has an adventurous spirit gets involved… it brings people together,” Candon smiles, explaining how most of her team-mates are all-rounders.

Candon (back row, second from left) representing Roscommon at the 2011 TG4 Ladies Football Championship Launch.Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

A lot of Candon’s team-mates have a background in basketball, like herself, while others have played soccer, rugby, and Aussie Rules; they have the skills and athleticism from a range of other sports and are adaptable. Others may have family in Ireland or other links. It’s a case of learning the rules, and going form there.

Candon tells some amazing stories: how Greek-Belgian goalkeeper Elena Postanzi had to go on a wild goose chase back to Athens to renew her passport before the trip to Leeds; how main scoring forward Clara Lambert is Danish, but often mistaken for being Irish because of her accent; how the aforementioned Rios — christened The Spanish Gooch by Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh – has been there since day dot and is “an encyclopaedia” of Gaelic football.

Then there’s the six-hour round-trips for games, the scraping together of players at times.

The commitment. The sacrifice. The will and desire.

“It’s really a club effort,” she nods.

And always has been.

Belgium GAA was established in 2003, with Dubliner Barbara Wynne one of the founding members. In the early 2000s, Wynne would have went to The Hague to play her football, Candon reveals, mentioning several other ’originals’ who ultimately came together to form one of the cornerstones of the Irish ex-pat community in Belgium.

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