Gaelic football on the Côte d’Azur with Azur Gaels
Richard Luke Faul, known as “Chard”, grew up near Reading before moving to Cornwall with his family and becoming a student at Exeter University, where he studied to be a translator. “My studies were barely finished,” the 27-year-old tells the Reporter, “when I landed a job as an in-house translator for a company in Toulouse. I was very keen to discover new things and blend in among the people whose language I had enjoyed learning since the age of eleven. I spent 3 and a half years in la Ville Rose, during which time a colleague introduced me to Gaelic football – in Toulouse there’s a very well established club, the Tolosa Gaels – and it very quickly became my main sport.”
Last year, “Chard” (2nd from left, front row) co-founded Azur Gaels, the Riviera’s first Gaelic football team. On December 12th, 2015, they played their first and only match (so far) against GF Provence.
In August 2015, Chard took a new translation job here on the Côte d’Azur, which also allowed him to be near a certain someone with whom he fell in love during his Exeter days.
Gaelic football is the biggest sport in Ireland, though it hasn’t really been exported until very recently. It was codified in 1887, but there are references to it dating back to the Middle Ages – so don’t think it’s anything new – but only started spreading throughout Europe and elsewhere over the last 10 or 20 years. In Ireland, it’s played 15-aside on a huge pitch; here in France, the game is adapted to 11-aside on a standard soccer pitch.
“The quickest way to get an idea for the sport and the rules,” Chard suggests, “is to look it up on YouTube – there are a few explainer videos, plus several full-length All-Ireland finals you can watch.
“It’s a very free-flowing, complete game and while aspects of the rules may sound quite complicated if you’re not familiar with the sport, with practice they all become reflexes. There are many techniques involved and it’s a very intense, attack-minded and high-scoring game. As someone who’s played both soccer and rugby, I love it, because I find it combines the freedom and skill of the former with the spirit and physicality of the latter.”
As he wanted to carry on playing Gaelic football after leaving Toulouse, Chard cofounded Azur Gaels because there was no club on the Côte d’Azur. He took to this sport so quickly not only because it’s a great game but because the people who are involved are so special. “What I understand now is that to maintain a sport that’s fairly unknown in this country, and to make it grow, it takes committed and talented people. There’s not one person I’ve met playing Gaelic football in France who doesn’t fit into that category. It made me want to get involved, too. In my year and a half playing for Tolosa Gaels, I became a club committee member, champion of France and most improved player of 2015. I even got to captain the team at one of the tournaments. After all of that, I was never going to stop playing just because there was no club in my area!
“Charley Cornillau, who had also played in the French championship, for Nantes, and had also made the move to the Côte d’Azur, contacted me shortly after my arrival. We met up in a pub and instantly started talking about creating a Gaelic football club. Our first training session involved me, Charley, a ball and two trees as goalposts. We’ve since become the perfect marriage. We are very different people, but very much united by our determination to build a club. We’re both involved in everything, but he likes the coaching and the sporting aspect, whereas I like the club organisation and communication side of things. He’s a defender, I’m an attacker … Bref. Through a lot of Facebook sharing, forum posting, harassment of colleagues and talking about Gaelic football to anyone who’ll listen, we were amazed to see our numbers at training grow from 2 to 3 to 5 to 8 to 16 to 22 within the space of two months. We had started out with the initial aim of getting eleven blokes together by the end of 2016 … but already we’ve played our first friendly game and are doing everything we can to offer competitive men’s and women’s football, plus a youth section. Ma Nolan’s pub chain is a sponsor and the Toulon rugby club invited us on January 31st to give an exhibition at the Allianz Riviera in Nice before their match with Stade Français. It’s just astonishing!
“Now we’ve around 25 players in total, including men, women and one 8-year-old boy. All are welcome at our club. The majority of the squad are French beginners, which is fantastic. Training is coached in French but I’m always happy to interpret where necessary. We’ve five experienced heads from the Irish community, three of whom make up the club committee with myself and Charley. As word spreads we’re slowly seeing more and more Irish people come and rediscover their sport – far from the rain and mud of back home! – and we’re delighted about that. I’m the only Englishman so far … but nationality is really of no importance, we just want everyone to be motivated to play and have some enjoyment.”
If you’re curious, now is the time to give it a go; the championship starts in March, and Azur Gaels have plenty of training sessions plus two or three friendlies pencilled in before then to get you up to speed. The team trains every Wednesday evening at 18h30 and every Saturday at noon at the Stade des Bouillides in Valbonne – and practices are open to all.
If you live nearer to Aix-en-Provence than to Valbonne, the neighbouring club GF Provence (www.gfprovence.fr) may be more convenient. As for the rest of France, there are 23 Gaelic football clubs throughout the country, and you can find your nearest at www.footballgaelique.fr/federation/clubs
GAELIC FOOTBALL: THE RULES
● The ball looks the same but is heavier than a regular football.
● It’s played with both hands and feet.
● There’s no offside.
● The goal is a cross between a regular soccer goal and a set of rugby posts, so you can score 3 points past the goalkeeper, or 1 point by getting it over the bar.
● Every 4 steps, you have to do something with the ball – you can pass, shoot, or, if you want to keep possession, either do a “solo” – drop the ball onto your foot and kick it back into the hands – or a “hop” – bounce the ball against the ground, but you can’t do two consecutive hops.
● In Gaelic football, you can’t pick the ball up directly from the ground but do a “pick-up”, by scooping the ball up with your foot into your hands.
● When hand passing the ball, you can’t just throw it to a teammate. You have to hold the ball in one hand and knock it with the other, either with an open hand or a closed fist.
● Contact: You’re not allowed to rugby tackle, slide tackle or rip the ball out of your opponent’s hands, but it’s still a very physical game.
● When the opponent has the ball, you have to try to slap it out of their hands, or steal it as they do their hop or solo, so you can expect a few stray knocks from swinging arms.
● Blocking shots involves a bit of courage too – to do it effectively, you have to smother the ball at the point of contact, in other words, throw yourself hands first at the swinging boot!