The final for Gaelic Football was held in Dublin on Sunday the 22nd of September this year. The finals for these great games are all held a historic Croke Park. "The Croker" is also home to the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) headquarters and a museum devoted to the history and development of the Gaelic Games. We will be visiting the stadium next year when Penn State and Central Florida bring American college football to this historic and storied field.
Each county in Ireland assembles a team of amateur players to represent them in the Gaelic Sports. A regular season pits these county teams against each other on weekends through the summer. A knockout-style playoffs determine who will play for the final and the traveling cup. This year the final was a showdown between the side from County Mayo and the local "Boys in Blue" from County Dublin.
We knew this game was going to be big for our neighbors and friends here. For at least a week, homes, businesses, and cars began sporting flags, banners, and signs with the county colors and logos of the two teams. Mayo flags are red and green and the Dubs wear two tones of blue. The teams are only identified by their county name, there are no official nicknames like "Dublin Vikings," "Mayo Spreaders," or "Tipperary Tippers." Missed opportunity, maybe? "Kilkenny Kenny-Killers?" I could go on and on. The counties are also identified by their names in the Irish language. Dublin is Atha Cliath- referring to an ancient river fording spot on the River Liffey. [aside- the English word Dublin comes from the Irish dubh linn meaning black pool, maybe that was easier to pronounce in English than Bhaile Atha Cliath for the city name? End aside.] County Mayo is Maigh Eo meaning "Plain of the Yew Tree." This is one of the many cases where the English name is just a re-spelling of the phonetic Irish pronunciation. Try it, Maigh Eo sounds like "my-e-oh." Say it a few times quickly and you'll get to Mayo.
The rules of Gaelic Football make it (in my very honest and humble opinion) a far superior game to world soccer to an American. I know world soccer has a few (hundred million) fans, but Gaelic Football really has something special about it. I am writing this description based only on my observations after watching one match- on purpose. We will be watching many more of these games when the season rolls around again, and I will have a more comprehensive grip on the rules by then. For now, I am just recording my own knee-jerk reactions to the game.
The game is played with a soccer-size ball with two goals on either side of the field (pitch.) The goals have two parts- a lower goal guarded by a goaltender, just like soccer, and a high goal that extends infinitely above the lower goal with goal posts. Players can score in the lower goal for three points or put the ball high above the goalkeeper through the goal posts for one point. Players can move the ball and score by kicking the ball or by slapping or bumping the ball from their hands. Yes, in this game, the ball can be carried and moved with the hands of the players. The ball cannot be picked up from the ground with hands, nor can it ever be thrown, but players can use hands to catch a ball from the air and carry the ball for up to three steps before passing, shooting, or dribbling (Yes! Dribbling!) the ball on the ground or off of their foot. When players need to send the ball a long distance, they usually drop-kick the ball to send it high and long. When a shorter, more accurate pass or goal shot is required, the players mostly used a volleyball-style bump or a slap of the ball. Throwing at any time is illegal. The game is also much more physical than world soccer. Because players can carry the ball with hands, there is much more upper-body and hand contact between players. It's not ice hockey, but it isn't tiddlywinks, either. Fouls (and a good number of yellow warning cards!) are called for excessive holding, pushing, or tackling.
These generous rules make the game much more high-scoring than a world soccer match, mostly because of the easy one-pointer goals. These easier scores still have to be earned, but they ensure that matches have some scoring throughout the flow of the game. Players still have to get the ball within range of a high kick, get open enough to make the kick without an opposing defender getting hands, feet, or face (yeah!) in the way of the shot, and send the ball accurately through the posts. The high scoring and more physical nature of this game gives a soccer-weary American a reason to cheer.
The Dublin-Mayo game was a good one. The lead went back and forth in the first half mostly on high one-pointer goals. The Dubs did get a low goal on a great play with a high pass getting over the goaltender and a well-placed Dub spiking it in with his hands. That's right soccer fans! No offside call! Scoring with the hands! FIFA should take note.
After halftime, Dublin took control. The boys in blue extended the lead throughout the second half. Late in the game, a series of desperation plays got Mayo much closer. As injury time (yes, injury time. No game can be perfect...) ticked down (er...I mean ticked up), Mayo was awarded a penalty shot when down by two points. If they made a goal for three points, they could have taken the championship. The player instead opted for the chip shot over the bar for one point in the hopes of getting the ball back before the refs (when they felt like enough time had elapsed...injury time...) blew the final whistle. Dublin cleared the ball out wide until the refs (deciding, 'yeh, I think that's enough time.') ended the match. Here's how the final score reads: Dublin 2-12 Mayo 1-14. The first number is how many three point goals scored, the second number is the one-pointers. Dublin had 18 total to Mayo's 17. They made it close and exciting, but the local Dubs beat the Mayans (not really called Mayans, but should be) to come out on top.
We watched the match from our favorite local pub in Donnybrook. We got some help on the rules of the game and some stories of championships past from some of the great neighborhood people while we enjoyed our thick, sweet Guinness. Here's to the Dublin team's great victory and to us getting some regular season GAA Football tickets next summer!