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Home >> Sports
UPDATED: 09:29, September 22, 2005
Gaelic football comes to Shanghai
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It's not soccer, rugby or Aussie rules, but it has elements of all three and it is powered by a small but dedicated - one could say addicted - fan base that plans to spread it anywhere it can get a toe-hold.

Gaelic football is Ireland's most widespread contribution to the world of sport.

It is played with a round ball similar to, but a little heavier than, a soccer ball. Use of hand passes is expected and encouraged. It is a fast and high-scoring game.

"I think it attracts people who play the bigger games," explained New Zealander Ling Teo during a training session a couple of weeks ago. "It has similar skill sets."

This weekend, about 450 players and 2,000 fans are expected at three venues across Shanghai for the 10th Asian Gaelic Games. It is the first time the tournament will be held here. In the past, it has been held in Hong Kong, Manila and Phuket.

Gaelic football is not as rough as rugby or Aussie rules but is rougher than soccer. Most of the people who play are expatriates used to the more violent games, although little by little, locals are beginning to join.

"People come out to have a weekend of sport," said the New Zealander and former rugby player.

"We've had some locals come out and say 'that's quite rough'."

Rough or not, a few have joined up, although they are mostly friends of current players.

"We do hope to appeal to more Chinese," said Maria Gilsenan, spokesperson for the Shanghai games and a new convert who has been playing for seven months.

Gaelic football is played on a pitch about the size of a rugby field. Official pitches are 150 metres by 90 metres. The ball can be passed with hand or foot and points are scored by either getting the ball into a soccer-like net for a goal that's worth three points or above it, between a pair of rugby-like posts for a single point.

"Gaelic football predates rugby, Aussie rules and all the other games it gets confused with," said Michael Bowens, a 25-year-old Irish IT professional who has been playing for 15 years.

The Gaelic Athletic Association, the sports governing body, dates back to 1884. In Ireland alone, said Bowens, there are 3,000 clubs.

"It's been around for centuries," he said. "It will continue. The next step is development overseas."

Nowhere is the sport developing faster than in Asia.

The first Asian Gaelic Games were held in 1995 with teams from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. The next year Singapore joined in. The games were held in Phuket, Thailand, in 2002, and Ireland's president attended. The last two years, the tournament was held in Hong Kong.

In China, the sport is spreading. Beijing has two teams. Hong Kong has enough teams to have a league of its own. Around Shanghai, new teams are expected in Hangzhou and Suzhou next year.

Few of the players - except for Irishmen who played in school and have a national tradition of Gaelic football - have much experience.

"We are all new to this game," said Maria Gilsenan, a Irish recruiter who moved to Shanghai in January and is now a player in the local team. "It is really growing."

Enterprise Ireland, an Irish cultural agency dedicated to the development of all things Irish, is backing the tournament organized completely by volunteers.

The aim of the weekend-long event - which kicks off Friday with a an opening ceremony at the Pearl Tower - is to compete but also to promote Ireland and its culture, explained Maria Gilsenan, the tournament's spokesperson.

For the players and the fans, the weekend will offer a simpler opportunity to just get out from the pavement and onto the grass.

"Here in Shanghai, it is such a drinking culture that people need to do something else," Gilsenan said.

While more players are coming on board -about 100,000 players around the world - the sport is still small.

"At the end of the day, it is always going to be an amateur sport," Gilsenan said. "It is not money led. It is about the competition."

Source: China Daily

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