Florina Tobon didn’t take the typical entry route into GAA. Her mother is from Belgium, her father is from Colombia, neither of which is a gaelic football stronghold. Up until the age of 21 she had never even played a team sport.
Enter Belgium GAA, also known as Craobh Rua. A club founded in Brussels in 2003, whose ladies team was only established by Dubliner Barbara Wynne in 2008.
Tobon, who lives in the capital city, spent a period in Ireland doing an Erasmus. During that time she took up Olympic Handball but upon returning home realised it wasn’t for her. Her affection to Ireland led her to pursue our national sport nearly 1000km away from Croke Park.
“It was my mum that actually told me that at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, where we play and where I studied, there was an Irish team and she encouraged me to go and give it a go,” Tobon explains to Balls.ie.
“I started playing football at the end of the season in 2018.
“I only played for like two months and then the season was over.
“One of my friends convinced me then to play rugby to help me get ready and then once the new season started, I started playing Gaelic football again.”
In the space of four years, Tobon has been on quiet the journey with the team. Last weekend the club made history when they played in the All-Ireland junior club championship quarter-final against Castleblayney Faughs, the first time they had ever reached that stage.
Craobh Rua are one of the great stories of the 2022 club GAA season. One of Europe’s biggest clubs, their ladies team is comprised of more foreign-born players than Irish ones. And thanks to players like Florina, they’ve become a force to be reckoned with.
Belgium were defeated by eight points and with a supporters bus travelling from Brussels to Maastricht in The Netherlands for the game, it will live long in the memories of the team.
“It was intense, it was a tough game.
“Even though we lost, I think we’re really happy with our performance and how far we’ve come.
“At the end of the game we were really happy with the score.
“We did our best, we had fun and I think we can be proud of ourselves,” Tobon says.
The performance is even more commendable given the fact that a number of the Belgium players hadn’t played fifteen a side matches until a couple of months ago.
“It has been a whole new experience (this year) because we are used to playing nine a side in Europe, fifteen a side is something we don’t do at all.
“In Europe we have our regionals, so we play in the Benelux Regionals.
“We play against teams from the Netherlands, Luxembourg and sometimes there’s a few teams from Germany that would join in.
“The games we are nine a side and it’s ten minutes a half.
“Once that is over, we have the pan Euros.
“It’s the same format, the final is usually a small bit longer, maybe 12 or 15 minutes a half.”
Belgium have had great success in the nine a side games. The club have won twelve out of the thirteen European Championships they have played in and this year won every European tournament they played in including the Benelux Regionals and pan Euros.
Journey to the All-Ireland quarter-final for Belgium GAA
To get to the All-Ireland quarter-final they saw off the challenge of Rennes before beating British champions Hugh O’Neills in Leeds, a victory that came as a surprise.
“We went in with no expectations, we were just there and we decided to just have fun and see how it went,” Tobon says of that win.
“We didn’t think much of it and we managed to beat them.
“We couldn’t believe it!”
This year the side has been managed by a Longford man. Cosmos Gilmore from Rathcline reached out to the club on Facebook messenger saying he could help with coaching a football team. The ladies jumped at the opportunity and Gilmore who is managing a ladies team for the first time has led them to new heights.
Gilmore has an impressive CV, having served as a selector under Donal Ó Fátharta, as Galway won the All-Ireland U20 football title in Croke Park in 2020.
“Cosmos has been training us this year and we really noticed the difference.
“It’s been great to have him in the club,” Tobon adds.
Belgium GAA looking forward to a big 2023
Belgium GAA are determined to continue their improvement under Gilmore next season.
“We are really eager to go to the next level.
“We had very little experience in fifteen a side, so playing three games with those numbers was a big deal for us.
“We learned a lot from playing against teams that are actually used to it.
“We’ve seen how far we can come and hopefully we can go even further next year.”
That could even present Florina with her first ever opportunity to play a match on Irish soil.
“I haven’t played in Ireland but I’d love to.
“Even a friendly, I think we might be looking into getting more fifteen a side games next year.
“Why not travel all the way to Ireland to play against an Irish team?”
After an impressive showing last weekend, Craobh Rua would certainly fancy their chances of taking a scalp away from home.