Over the past number of weeks, European football fans have watched in amazement as a team of bit-part players from Greece have won the second-most prestigious tournament in the world. The stars of the Premiership, La Liga and Serie A have emerged from the European Championships looking like over-hyped, underachieving conmen. People might rightly ask themselves, where now for European football?
In Ireland, thankfully, we have a compelling alternative to the overblown world of professional football in the form of an annual festival of amateur sport: the GAA championships. The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884, and since that time has organised at local level, competitions in hurling and Gaelic football. These games provide an intense focus for people's identity, in a way that has become diluted in professional sport.
A team like Real Madrid can buy in players from anywhere in the world and attract supporters from different parts of Spain and South America. In the world of Gaelic games however, players are natives of the counties they represent, and county teams draw their support from within. Moreover, while the players are gifted sportsmen and superbly fit athletes, they live the life of Joe Average, working in ordinary occupations alongside the people who cheer for them. Such a level of connection between teams and their supporters makes automatic the identification of one with the other. Games are organised at provincial level where local rivalries are keenest, and championship fixtures are characterised by raw, spine-tingling passion.
Both Gaelic football and hurling are played with fifteen men per side over a seventy minute period. The playing area is considerably larger than an association football pitch (137m x 82m), with the teams scoring through posts similar to those used on a rugby pitch. Gaelic football has been described as mixture of rugby, association football and basketball (though it's much older than any of these), while hurling is similar to hockey, only much more physical and faster. As well as that, hurlers are allowed to carry the ball in their hand and on the stick, and can strike the ball above head-level. It's is the oldest field sport in Europe.
Almost every county in Ireland enters a team in the Gaelic football championship whereas championship hurling is virtually confined to the southern third of the country. While each province in Ireland (Ulster in the north, Leinster in the east, Munster in the south and Connaught in the west) has representatives in both codes, the concentration of hurling in the south means that the Munster hurling championship is the most eagerly anticipated provincial competition. Indeed, for many people, the Munster hurling final, traditionally played on the last Sunday of June, is the most prestigious and, often, the most entertaining GAA match in the calendar.
This year's Munster hurling final, played on 27 June in Thurles, Co Tipperary ('the home of hurling', according to the sign outside the town), has already been described by some commentators as the best Munster final in living memory. Contested by 2002 champions, Waterford, and last year's winners, Cork, the game provided an enthralling spectacle for Irish sports fans, stricken by the sheer awfulness of Euro 2004.