“The Kim Chi Kickers of GAAG ’97
It is eleven years ago since I hung up my Gaelic football boots. In point of fact, it’s also eleven years since I first put them on, although I’m having trouble recalling exactly what were on my feet as I played the position of goalkeeper for the Kimchi Kickers, the first team from the Republic of Korea to participate in the Guinness Asia Gaelic Games (GAGG), held at Manila’s salubrious Nomads Sports Club from June 6th to June 8th 1997.
It should come as no surprise that my memories of the occasion are now somewhat fuzzy for it took a team celebration hosted by the Irish Ambassador to Korea two weeks after the event to piece together some semblance of what exactly happened such was the entertainment both on and off the field of play.
From the outset I’d like to let it be known that as our motley squad assembled on the afternoon of June 5th at Seoul’s Kimpo Airport I was very much under the impression I was only accompanying the Kimchi Kickers as one of three official fans (the others being yer man Shay from Unilever, and Yvonne, the wife of Alan Hobbs of Enterprise Ireland/IDA distinction), for I’d never in my life played Gaelic Football (the only preceding Gaelic Athletic Association recollection of note was when as an eight year old being forced to finish a dish of cold cabbage and ham in a dining room festooned by dazzling silver All-Ireland trophies and medals at the Tralee home of John Joe Sheedy, the Kerry great) and hadn’t a clue about the rules. I’d also never been to the Philippines, and knowing well the band that called themselves the Kimchi Kickers this was one experience I wasn’t going to miss.
I’d also like to let it be known that at a quarter to four the following morning as we all poured ourselves back into the Midtown Hotel lobby, the official GAGG hotel, after an over enthusiastic introduction to Manila’s riotous nightlife, I still hadn’t a clue about the rules. I do recall though one of the more perceptive members of our line-up noting the lobby being very quiet at this time (“all the other teams must be asleep” she noted), that our New Zealand borne goalkeeper was missing, while our star player, Roy, was complaining about a bite on his neck (not of the Mosquito variety) and the need to get some sort of injection.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that one and all had just came together at the airport, were given a rule book, a Kimchi Kicker sports shirt and directed toward the boarding gate. Nothing could be further from the truth. By the time the Kimchi Kickers assembled they were a well and truly oiled team. They (note at this stage I don’t use the word “we”) were comprised of dedicated FAS graduates, Aussie Rules fanatics from down under, in addition to a Canadian and the New Zealand goalkeeper, all of whom had been religiously practicing every Sunday for the previous four or five months. And training conditions were harsh indeed, sure there wasn’t even a decent Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) practice pitch to be found anywhere in Seoul, except those hard asphalt surfaces. And despite some queer looks of puzzlement from the locals as to what sort of ball game was being played by the ginger-haired foreigners with those green tartan hats, the Kimchi Kickers persevered with their training program under the wise, professional, and inspirational guidance of Alan Hobbs. British Airways came in with a bit of sponsorship money, which made possible the fitting out of stylish on-and-off the pitch attire (as in navy blue polo shirts), which, in hindsight, must have been the attraction to join for the Kimchi Kickers’ two secret weapons: Annie from Ireland and Sue from Korea. They’d remain secret until five minutes before the kick-off of the first match when an impassioned argument with the match officials and tournament organisers ensued. Our first win and a first in GAGG history: acceptance of a unisex team that would soon be taking on the might of Singapore Gaelic Athletic Association and Hong Kong Gaelic Athletic Association.
It was also a committed and confident team raring to go, ready to do Korea proud, that arrived in Manila Airport, where we were bumped into Cathal Friel, a friend from Donegal, on the first leg of a world backpacking trip, who wanted to see for himself what all the commotion was about. While promising he’d be Kimchi Kickers loyal fan #4 it was lightheartedly noted his hiking boots were multipurpose. “You must be joking”, said he.
And so to 8.00am back in the now full of life lobby of the Midtown Hotel, after less than three hours sleep. In the midst of all the cheery smiles, the hearty mix of Irish county, Australian and many imperceptible accents, the good –natured slagging and banter, as old friendships and bonds were rekindled among Gaels from Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Thailand, Malaysia and Korea, I had the first spine-tingling moment of many I’d experience over the next two days: Despite the euphoria and the sense of occasion everyone had a single-mindedness. They were here to emulate the spirit of Derek Brady and bring back the Trophy bearing his name to their respective country of temporary exile. It was a great moment to be Irish.
With the outside temperature hitting a sweltering 35 degrees Celsius, by the time we boarded the coach to drive us to the tournament venue we were already covered with sweat. However, it wasn’t just the heat that was concerning the Kimchi Kickers. Our New Zealand goalkeeper wasn’t exactly of sound mind having just returned from a night on the town absolutely the worst for wear.
“But Niall all you need to do is stand there and keep your eyes focused on the ball, we’ll do the rest”.
“But I don’t know the rules”, my second spine-quivering moment.
“We’ll explain”, said the girls, and in one of those “and the way she might look at you” Sally O’Brien moments I was in as goalkeeper for the Kimchi Kickers.
The girls produced a ridiculous looking pair of Nomads Sports Club black shorts, with an outlandish green goalkeeper’s hat, while someone else produced a pair of white runners. I was ready.
We were ready and as we ran out onto the park for our first game the only words ringing in my mind were the conundrum “carry the ball three steps, drop and toe-kick back into the hands, repeat when you’re running up the pitch and then hand-pass”. I recall we got off to the best start possible. Team Malaysia, our first opponents, had decided they could make their own way to the venue by taxi only to become lost in transit.
For the next two days we ran our hearts out… It was absolutely brilliant.
Even now I can visualise the stifling heat, bottles of water flying all over the place, newly recruited belisha beacon-like Cathal Friel running around the pitch in his hiking boots, the two girls scaring the living bejesus out of the opposition through their high-pitched screeching and other choice weapons of mass destruction, and the strong presence and savvy footballing skills of Colin, Ray and Alan. All helped to win the big-hearted crowd over to our underdog status. The personal high for me on the field of play though was the draw with Singapore and my match saving tackle on their leading light. I just remember telling myself he wasn’t going to get past me, closing my eyes and running in his direction. He didn’t and the ensuing crunch hurt a lot, yet the adrenalin rush from hearing the crowd show their appreciation while my fellow Kimchi Kickers patted me on the back had me up in a jig running back to protect our goal, ready for more of the same.
In the end the Kimchi Kickers lost a few games, won one or two. However, the results didn’t matter. What mattered was the courage, dedication, loyalty to team mates, the desire to win, the humbleness in victory, and dignity in defeat that each and every participant confirmed to be the true unique spirit of the Guinness Asia Gaelic Games.
When it was announced I had been voted the Aer Rianta Player of the Tournament / Man of the Match, another spine-tingling moment, I felt truly humbled, an honour I am still very proud of to this day (a very useful piece of GAA metal to highlight in my CV). The post-tournament celebrations and the camaraderie were equally amazing.”
This personal recollection was written by myself — The Goalkeeper — for the Gaelic Games Association Asian County Board website. It is posted here: