French lockdown puts thriving Lyon GAA scene on hold until probably 2021

The Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand teams together after a tournament in 2018
The French GAA season's model is built on weekend blitz tournaments when teams travel from all over the country to play in one location

While the GAA authorities in Ireland continue to hold out hope of seeing further gaelic games action in 2020, the sport's custodians in France have already acknowledged that their championship season is not going to happen.

Warrenpoint native Eoin Campbell is chairman of Lyon-based Lugdunum club and he admits there was little option for the sport than to fold up its tent for the summer after the French authorities announced there would be no mass gatherings until at least September because of the coronavirus outbreak.

If anything, the French lockdown is even more stringent than the UK or Ireland with parks and riverside paths closed and people having to demonstrate a very good reason why they should be outside if stopped by the police.

French GAA, like the sport throughout Europe and indeed much of the globe, is played on a a 'blitz' model which involves teams from all over the country descending on one location to play over one day or perhaps weekends.

"The French finals were planned to be in Bordeaux this year," county Down man Campbell told BBC Sport Northern Ireland's Thomas Niblock.

"If you take the map from Lyon to Bordeaux, it's hard to get places further apart in a French context so it would have involved an awful lot of travel and people coming from different directions and then going back in all directions.

"When you have a concern like the current virus, that's very, very problematic. Much more problematic than going to the next village or town to play a match.

"Also have to put in an awful lot of work in when they are the hosts. Things are over for the year but it's the only decision that could be made."

GAA players in France 'predominantly French'

The scrapping of the summer campaign is a major disappointment to thousands of people in France from whom the GAA represents probably their main social outlet.

And Campbell is at pains to point out that we would be wrong to assume that the vast majority of people playing the sport in France are Irish expatriates.

"French GAA in general would be predominantly French natives. Particularly if you go to the likes of Brittany where most of the clubs there would have no Irish at all.

"Even closer to here, a club like Clermont Ferrand, which is about two hours away, I don't know if they have any Irish players at the minute.

"Here in Lyon, we do have a solid base of Irish players. With Erasmus students each year that can fluctuate but we would be majority French and that is particularly the case with our ladies team at the minute."

The composition of the teams means nearly all club business is conducted in French, which Campbell jokes includes giving verbals to the referees when that occasionally happens on the field of play.

"The first tournament that I went to was as a spectator but I ended up playing with another team for the day as it was before we had put Lyon together.

"I remember standing by the sideline and my French wasn't really that good at the time and I heard a young fellow just screaming at the referee with what I could work out was the similar kind of nasty things that would be said to referees at home."

Match action from a game between the Lyon and Rennes clubs in 2018
The French lockdown means that sporting events will not take place in the country until at least September

'We're a fairly strong club now'

Campbell arrived in Lyon 12 years ago with the intention of spending 12 months or so in a delightful city particularly renowned for its food.

But 12 years on, he shows no signs of departing after becoming heavily involved in the city's Irish-French association which also incorporates the GAA club.

"The Irish association began in Lyon about six months before I arrived. I got involved fairly quickly with another couple of Irish lads who were around at the time - Alan Buckley from Cork and Dave Lewis from Armagh.

"We pulled together the first team. We went to a tournament in Brittany and we've been competing regularly since that point and thankfully we're a fairly strong club now.

"Lugdunam is both the Latin and Gaelic name for the city of Lyon and as we function under the banner of the French-Irish association that helps to celebrate and enjoy Irish culture.

"We would have equal membership of French and Irish people but our little GAA club and association is like a hub for Irish people based here."

A couple of years ago, Lugdunum twinned with Campbell's home club Warrenpoint and representatives from both outfits have been back and forth on visits.

Like so many sports clubs across the globe, the club's activities are now on hold but its roots in the community will doubtless ensure it flourishes again when the time comes for players to get their football boots out from under the stairs again.

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