Thomas walked slowly up to the gate by the field. He passed the Etihad Airways tents and empty Corona bottles on the faded picnic tables. He peered out over the green grass and lined fields and breathed deeply. Albeit the games had ended and most of the players had gone for the showers long before, the atmosphere remained. The old man remained too. His son-in-law was calling him to leave as it was getting late and his grandson was ready for bed, but he lingered a moment more. Just for a moment, and then he turned his back to the pitch and smiled. It wasn’t everyday he’d get to see the honored games of his homeland, Ireland, played in the desert.
If you had ventured out to Zayed Sports City near Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque sometime on Friday, March 6th, you may have been a bit surprised. A little less so if you were Irish, but surprised nonetheless. All around Zayed Sports City were teams from across the globe competing against each other in two of the oldest games on the planet. Despite their lack of notoriety, hurling and Gaelic football are two of the oldest and most athletic sports around, so seeing them up close and personal is always a thrill.
This year, Abu Dhabi held the first ever Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) World Games. Teams from as far away as Canada, Australia, Belgium, and even Argentina, competed against one another in an intense but sportsman shoulder-to-shoulder affair. The skill levels were as varied as the players.
Some teams had played very little. I spoke to one Argentinian at a friendly last Wednesday before the games. He confessed to me that they had not played a competitive match against anyone before that night.
“Is our first game ever?” he said.
Still other teams had gone to extraordinary lengths to prepare. The South African squad had apparently buttoned up their winter coats and headed to Ireland itself to play a few friendlies before finally making the journey to the United Arab Emirates. Whatever skill or experience each team held, every player that touched cleat to turf this weekend had one thing in mind… a World Championship.
I, however, had not traveled very far. I’ve lived in Abu Dhabi since August 2013. In fact, I’ve lived in the UAE for about as long as I’ve been playing competitive Gaelic football, a year and a half. I joined the Abu Dhabi Na Fianna Club when I first moved here and was welcomed instantly with open arms. Despite being the sole Yank – American nickname – they have not stopped welcoming me since. I was still surprised, however, when they asked me to play in the upcoming World Games tournament. Albeit, a smaller tournament including mostly GAA Middle East teams, it was an honor to be asked nonetheless.
“Will you be there this Friday, Dylan?” the chairman of the club asked.
I wish I could’ve confidently replied, “Beidh mé ann!” which translates to ‘I’ll be there’ in Irish. Unfortunately, I know less Irish now than I did about Gaelic Football a year a half ago. So my reply was a simple, “sure” … in English.
Showed up Friday morning at 8:30 to find each and every colorful team and their fans already a buzz with excitement and anticipation at the games ahead. Asia was sporting the red and black with a touch of white, while Galicia had on white with a diagonally striped sky blue banner. North America upheld its traditional USA colors with red, white, and blue whereas Middle East teams went with vibrant gold and black. Those colors represented so much more than the country’s flags. They took a personality of pride that would bleed into the play of the next two days.
The team I’d play for on the day was put together with members from Abu Dhabi’s local GAA club, Na Fianna. We would compete in the World Social Cup, designed to be a bit friendlier. While not the International Cup, or the World Cup, as the larger represented countries would compete, the competition was no less ferocious. The brackets held clubs from Asia, Kerry County in Ireland, and a few smaller clubs from the Middle East such as the Kuwait Harps and the Dubai Celts. Without going into too much detail about our tournament itself, it was, to say the least, a strong showing, and great craic all around.
The final game ended Saturday evening with the second of the two Middle East teams left holding the overall GAA World Cup. Every person who’d anything to do with the games that weekend would agree that it was a success in how it was run. What really stood out for me though were the thousands of individuals on and off the pitch that got to see a game, and subsequently a culture, that few get the chance to witness. Whether it was the Argentinians, South Africans, Belgian, or even the closer Omanis, men and women from around the world were grateful to be a part of a global competition that originated in a small green isle off the western coasts of Europe. A competition in which Thomas was raised.
There are a lot of “Thomas”es in Ireland – men and women who have grown up living and loving the Gaelic sports of their youth. This is a beautiful thing, to have such pride in the sports of your youth. However, what struck me the Monday after the tournament as I stood on the pitch before training, was that I felt that same twinge of profound connection to the Gaelic games. I felt apart of a game that has brought people together in a common bond of sport throughout the ages. I stood on that sideline looking out over the green grass and the towering uprights and I reveled in its greatness. And so, before I stepped across the white painted lines, I lingered for a moment and smiled.
It’s not every day you get to see the honored games of Ireland played in the desert.
Comhghairdeachas ollmhór – ‘huge congratulations’ – to all involved, and rest assured, God willing, come the next GAA World Games…
‘Beidh mé ann!’