10,000km from home…Gaelic football in Hà Nội with Viet Celts GAA

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O’Neills balls are synonymous with Gaelic football and, since 2007, Viet Celts Hanoi GAA have been synonymous with Irish sports in the capital. VNS Photos Seán Nolan

Seán Nolan

It’s just over 10,000km from Croke Park, Dublin to Sân Bóng Hoàng Gia, Hà Nội, but on a Thursday evening, you’d be forgiven for getting the two confused.

Viet Celts Hanoi Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) probably caused some amusement the first time they took to the pitch to train. In the middle of teams playing association football, seeing a group of foreigners picking up the ball and running with it in their hands probably caused a couple of laughs.

In Ireland though, nothing could be more natural.

Unlike association soccer, players in Gaelic football pass by sticking the ball with a closed fist.

In fact, Gaelic football is Ireland’s most popular and well-attended sport, eclipsing soccer by the tens of thousands of fans. Croke Park, the home of Gaelic football, is the third-largest stadium in Europe, beaten only by Camp Nou in Barcelona and Wembley Stadium in London.

Viet Celts GAA Hanoi began in 2007 as a small group of expats just looking to kick a ball together. From those humble beginnings, Viet Celts have grown into a massive part of the capital’s expat community — not just introducing Gaelic football to Hà Nội, but making it an intrinsic part of the community.

“Back then there were only seven or eight people playing,” said Neil Hiney, 32 and a native of Ireland. “Whereas now, as you can see, there are about 30-40 people playing.”

Neil joined Viet Celts thanks to the close-knit Irish community that can be found in cities across the world.

“I met a few people when I arrived, you met some Irish people when you arrive anywhere, and, all of a sudden, I was playing with the Viet Celts!”

Tanya Dunican from Tipperary shared a similar story of when she arrived four years ago.

“When we first came to Viêt Nam we added the GAA group and then they invited us to come down and play with them.”

Like most who grew up in Ireland, she’s been playing since she was very small, and relishes the chance to keep playing here.

On a good week, Viet Celts Hanoi GAA have around 50 players turn up for training. While the core of the team is Irish, the rest of the team hail from all four corners of the world; Vietnamese, South Africans and Australians, to name a few.

Viet Celts aren’t just a social team either — they are in the final throes of preparing to defend their South Asian Gaelic Games title this weekend, against the likes of Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.

At one of their final training sessions before flying out to Bangkok, Mark Kirwan was cautiously optimistic about their chances of retaining the title.

“We won it two years ago at the last games, first time in ten years, so please, God, we’ll win it again!”

Viet Celts Hanoi GAA will be defending their South Asian Gaelic Games title this weekend in Bangkok.

Ross Earley from Roscommon is a coach for the men’s senior team. Despite cracking jokes during warm up, when it came to training time, he was barking orders and giving encouragement as if it was the All-Ireland Final itself they were training for.

“Don’t run with your backs to the posts after you score!”

“Watch those shoulders!”

“Good goal, well done, well done!”

Ross Earley has been playing Gaelic football and hurling since he was four years old, and puts his vast experience to good use as a coach for the Viet Celts.

After training though, the serious stuff was dropped again, as he collected money for the pitch and corralled as many people as he could to the near-mandatory “few scoops” at the bia hoi down the road — the same work hard, play hard ethos that drives clubs up and down the isle of Ireland.

Off the pitch, as is common for most GAA clubs, Viet Celts take pride in their community work too. Part of that involves close ties with Blue Dragon Children’s foundation, introducing disadvantaged Vietnamese children to the game through their youth team.

On the field, Gaelic football can be ferocious. Off the field though, Viet Celts pride themselves on their work in the community.

So, if you’re looking to keep fit, make new friends and join one of the largest and friendliest expat groups in Hanoi, make sure you don’t overlook Viet Celts Hanoi GAA.

Finally, good luck to all the boys and girls in Bangkok this weekend — here’s hoping the craic’s 90, the medal’s gold and the beers are cold!

Five facts you didn’t know about Gaelic Games.

– Despite being broadcast on Sky Sports, all Gaelic Atheltic Association sports remain completely amateur sports, staying true to the volunteer ethos the clubs were founded on. Almost all players have full-time jobs off the pitch.

– The first mention of Gaelic football in Irish records was in 1308, when a player called John McCrocan in County Down accidentally stabbed another player. No further details were given.

– Former Spanish football player and manager Xabi Alonso won a Junior All-Ireland Football medal with Gaeil Colmcille GAA at the age of 15 as an exchange student.

– Unlike soccer or rugby, GAA sports have no offside rule.

– There are more than 400 GAA clubs outside of Ireland, including one in the Arctic Circle.

Five facts you didn’t know about Gaelic Games.

– Despite being broadcast on Sky Sports, all Gaelic Atheltic Association sports remain completely amateur sports, staying true to the volunteer ethos the clubs were founded on. Almost all players have full-time jobs off the pitch.

– The first mention of Gaelic football in Irish records was in 1308, when a player called John McCrocan in County Down accidentally stabbed another player. No further details were given.

– Former Spanish football player and manager Xabi Alonso won a Junior All-Ireland Football medal with Gaeil Colmcille GAA at the age of 15 as an exchange student.

– Unlike soccer or rugby, GAA sports have no offside rule.

– There are more than 400 GAA clubs outside of Ireland, including one in the Arctic Circle.

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