The Iraqi barman who plays GAA... in Spain!
The Costa Gaels of Marbella are spreading our national sport, writes Iain Dempsey
It's 29 degrees on a Saturday morning in mid-October. A gecko on a pitch-side advertising hoarding basks in the searing heat, oblivious to the group of 12 sweaty footballers running some hand-passing drills only a few feet away.
On the sun-drenched bleachers of the sports grounds in the tiny village of Ojen on Spain's Costa del Sol, a curious crowd has gathered – all male; old and young – to marvel at a sport they know nothing about.
They are as oblivious to the rules of Gaelic football as the lazy lizard is to the training session currently under way. A few of the kids comically try to replicate the hand passes they are watching. "No puedo hacerlo" – "I can't do it" – one of them says.
The Costa Gaels, based in the popular holiday resort of Marbella, are pioneering the most Irish of sports in Spain, one of only eight GAA-affiliated clubs in the country.
"There are more and more Spanish turning up to watch each game," says Costa Gaels chairman Gordon Loughnane.
"We've had some Spaniards come down and train with us before, but generally they back off because of the physicality of the game. But sometimes they'll get a kick out of playing a different sport. They tell their friends and interest spreads."
But it's not just the Spanish who are becoming interested in the GAA. Akilless Haider, a burly, imposing 44-year-old Iraqi, is the Costa Gaels goalkeeper. Having fled Baghdad after Operation Desert Storm, Akilless worked a few jobs before ending up as a barman in an Irish bar.
It was while working one Sunday afternoon that he saw his first Gaelic match.
"It was Tipperary versus Kilkenny and the bar was packed," he recalls. "I was watching this weird game and couldn't believe the interest in it. At first I didn't understand the rules but from talking with the customers, I gradually got a grasp on what was going on. I was hooked.
'When I heard there was a club based here I wanted to get involved. That was three years ago and every Wednesday and Saturday I'm the first person to show up to training. Always. The bloody Irish are always late." Akilless is right. Among the late Irish contingent this morning are a Ryanair pilot (no "another on-time Ryanair flight" fanfare heralds his arrival), a psychiatric nurse, an IT specialist and numerous barmen.
This morning sees the first session for 18-year-old Ben Stam from Holland, decked out in a Donegal jersey. He's young and he's fit and he takes to his first involvement without a problem.
"The number of foreign lads getting involved in GAA sports down here is growing," says Loughnane.
"When we started 10 years ago, it was mainly Irish lads, but now we're getting a mix of every kind. We've had Australians, Kiwis, South Africans and even Swedes playing for the Costa Gaels."
The crowd on the sidelines continue to watch, a few them generously offering the occasional "Olé!" when the ball finds the back of the net.
The hangovers get sweated out and they pack up their gear, utterly exhausted, to scattered applause from their bemused Spanish audience; the newest aficionados of one of Ireland's oldest and beloved games.