It’s estimated that over 1,500 Irish natives currently reside in Sweden with many of them following the ‘blonde girlfriend trail’ overseas.
Plenty settle in and adapt to Swedish culture but, not content with learning the language and stealing the women, the exiles have started to export Irish culture too with GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) clubs springing up in Malmö and Gothenburg.
The rivalry between these two Swedish foes is up there on the Man Utd v Liverpool scale for the players involved, with Stockholm looking set to join the fray in the near future.
There are even organised tournaments with other international GAA teams participating with new players including Aussies, Belgians, French, Swedes and the odd Icelandic convert to the popular Irish pastime.
In the country where the game was invented, Gaelic football is a national passion which peaks the popularity of soccer during the Championship season, which runs from May to September.
This year’s final between the all conquering Kerry side and their habitual rivals, Cork, was played in front of over 80,000 fans in Dublin’s Croke Park, which will be familiar to Swedish sports fans as the temporary home of the Irish soccer team. Oh, and unlike their football contemporaries none of the GAA players get paid a cent. It’s all about the pride of representing your home county.
The sport can best be described to newcomers as a hybrid between soccer and rugby although as devotees will tell you Gaelic has been around for far longer. Played with a round ball with posts similar to a rugby pitch, players can pick the ball up with their hands and earn a point for kicking it over the bar and three points if they score a goal.
It’s played at a frenetic pace and isn’t for the faint hearted. Just ask Sir Alex Ferguson, who was amazed at the physical nature of the game when he was a guest at a match in Croke Park several years ago.
Here in Sweden the game has been growing steadily since the first club was established by some Irish exiles in Gothenburg back in 2004. Founder Billy ‘The Kid’ Finn got in contact with the European GAA board enquiring how to establish a club and the rest, as they say, is history.
“At the start it was just a bunch of lads having a kick around. Although we founded the club in 2004 it has only been in the past two years that things have really started to kick on,” Finn tells The Local.
The founder, who hails from Limerick in Ireland’s midwest, moved to Sweden over a decade ago for work reasons. Now firmly established in the Swedish way of life, Finn has been at the helm in transforming Gothenburg’s team into the finest international GAA side in Europe.
Finn’s charges recently scooped the Pan-European title in Copenhagen after edging past the hosts in a dramatic final. Proof of Gaelic football’s expansion overseas was plain to see at the event with teams from Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and the Channel Islands competing against the cream of Scandinavian talent.
“The central European teams were lording it over us for a while but now Scandinavia has several quality teams who are more than a match for them. Our team on the day was made up entirely of Irish lads though we’ve had Aussies and Swedish players turn out for us also in the past,” says Finn.
He is complimentary of the efforts of the locals, who have embraced the rugged Irish game in his adopted home of Gothenburg.
“Most of the Swedish lads have played Aussie rules in the past so they fit right in once they get to grips with the style of the game. We help each other and have been fortunate to find a good place to train at a local rugby club in the city,” he adds.
European GAA has expanded dramatically in recent years and the standard is quite high. Events such as the Copenhagen tournament are affiliated with the GAA and receive funding from the home of the national sports in Dublin’s Croke Park. Official match referees are even sent over from Ireland to handle high profile matches
But Gothenburg are unlikely to have things entirely their own way now that their southern Swedish rivals Malmö have put themselves on the map with an international lineup featuring Irish players and a star forward from Iceland.
Team Captain Mark Rattigan left Drumree, Co. Meath four years ago and has made Malmö his home with his girlfriend and daughter.
“My brother lived here for ten years and I came over for a short visit to play golf. Like every Irish fella over here I met a Swedish girl and ended up staying.
“We established the club a few months ago as we had a bunch of lads playing Aussie rules who fancied playing Gaelic too. Our first match was against Gothenburg and we got slaughtered but when we played them again a while later we beat them and they certainly didn’t like being turned over by this bunch of upstarts,” he says.
Malmö Chairman John Noonan has been instrumental in the club’s growth since they played their first match back in May. Having lived in Sweden for a decade he was inspired to start a Gaelic team after reading about the development of the Irish sport abroad.
“Over the last few years there were articles about GAA tournaments so I figured let’s get a team together. We discovered there were many more Irish here in Malmö than we expected and we basically knew we had a team about two days before our first tournament in May.
“We’d done preparation work a few months earlier to generate sponsorship and organised training sessions for the players. Much to our surprise we became Scandinavian champions in our first year after a tough game against Gothenburg in the summer. They are our main rivals now and we’re always out to beat each other.”
While the Malmö side is made up mainly of Irish ex-pats their ranks have been joined by their star full forward, Sigmundur Arnar Jósteinsson, who hails from Iceland. Known as the ‘Iceman’ by his team-mates, Sigmundur only learnt to play Gaelic in the summer and is already a key member of the cosmopolitan Malmö side.
He struggles with English and is helped by colleague Noel Grehan who speaks perfect Swedish with barely a hint of his Longford accent.
”I play soccer and was asked by Noel to try Gaelic one day. I’ve never seen it on TV before but I love it and the Irish lads have made me very welcome,” says the Iceman.
Team-mate Grehan praises the new convert’s ability as “fast and lethal,” adding: “Simmi has improved so much. Considering he started from nothing and hadn’t seen the game before. Now he’s one of our better players.”
With Malmö and Gothenburg flying the flag for Ireland’s national sport abroad the game is set to expand nationally with a new club planned for Stockholm next year. With new sides from Oslo, Bergen and Helsinki also set to join the fray, soccer may have some competition on its hands for the title of the world’s global game.
Billy Finn concludes, “There are serious plans for a club in Stockholm to compete with ourselves and Malmö. Gaelic football is only going to get bigger and bigger in this country in the years ahead.”
For more information on Gothenburg and Malmö GAA sides and how to get involved log onto: http://www.gothenburggaa.se/ & http://www.malmogaa.com/
Both clubs also have Facebook groups and always welcome new members.