I guess you can Gaelic my balls

[It’s a terrible title, I know, but sadly Zoolander references trump any pithy alliteration I could think of. Anyway, herewith a little rant about a rather strange sport, accompanied by some amazingly sexist advertisements for Irish potato chips.]

So my better half is off to a Gaelic football tournament in Saigon (which I still refuse to call Ho Chi Minh City) this evening. Those are words that, four months ago, I wouldn’t have expected to find myself typing.

So we play Gaelic football now.

I mean, why not? Of all the random sports that could’ve been imported to Taiwan, why not this bizarre running kicking punting bouncing hybrid? Codified in the late 19th century, Gaelic football, or Peil Ghaelach, as it’s known in Ireland, is the most popular sport by attendance in its home country, and one of the few strictly amateur sports in the world, meaning players, coaches and managers are prohibited from receiving any form of payment for their efforts. Looking at me sliding around the muddy field at Bailing Sports Park last Saturday, skating around in my stud-less running shoes following two days of unremitting rain, the strictly amateur tag couldn’t have been more apt.

Suffice it to say that, studs or not, I’m quite crap at it. I haven’t played a team ball sport in 17 years — this being the year when I’ve been out of school for as many years as I had under my belt when I matriculated, which seems a good reason to begin indulging in another fine Irish pastime: downing a bottle of whisky. Regardless of the swift passing of my youth or the ineptitude of my passing in football, I’ve missed this sort of thing. Sports are fun. I also met more people in one day at the local tournament than I had in two months prior living in Taipei.

So what exactly is Peil? Well it’s like a hodgepodge of soccer, rugby, basketball and volleyball. You can kick the ball along the ground or out of hand. You can run with it but only for four steps, after which you need to bounce it or solo it, which means kicking it to yourself, before you can run another four paces (what constitutes four paces is open to wild and broad interpretation). You can’t do either consecutively, though; you need to alternate the actions. You can pass but only by punting or hitting the ball with your hand, or by kicking. It’s pretty physical, but tackling really involves slapping the ball out of your opponent’s hand. You score by kicking the ball into the goal, for 3 points, or over it (there are rugby style posts over the goals) for one point. Except in the local tournament you could also punt it over with your hand, which isn’t a canon rule, but was allowed because there were a lot of newbs, including myself. However, if someone kicks it at the goal you can deflect it in with your hand. Also, if the ball is on the ground officially you can’t just pick it up, but rather you have to use your foot and hand to leverage it up. Make sense? Yeah, I thought so.

Anyway, turns out there are enough expats scattered across South and South East Asia for this game to have gained enough traction for there to be an annual South Asian Gaelic Games — fielding 25 teams from seven countries. There aren’t enough blokes in the Taiwan Celts club to make up a team, but the women are fielding two teams, which is an amazing thing in itself, and means the hotel after party will likely be double as messy (this is an Irish pastime, remember).

Sláinte!