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The most widely played sport in Ireland is Gaelic Football, which along with Hurling is organised by the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA) and is the national sport of Ireland.
Football is like a cross between, soccer and rugby and is closely associated with Australian Rules Football.
Gaelic Football is played with a round ball, slightly smaller and heavier than a soccer ball and played against Rugby style H shaped goal posts. Points are scored by either putting the ball over the opponent's bar, as with rugby, for one point, or within the goal posts as with soccer, which is worth three points. Players can kick the ball or handle the ball, but just to make it more difficult, they can't travel with the ball for more than four steps - players have to bounce it on the ground or drop the ball onto their foot and kick it back into their hand, which, in the game, is called soloing.
Gaelic Football is not for the feint hearted. It's an extremely physical game played with 15 men on each side (a goalkeeper, two corner backs, a full back, three half backs, two midfielders, three half forwards, two corner forwards and a full forward) plus up to fifteen substitutes, of which five may be used. Like all other GAA sports, football is an amateur sport and it's the game's toughness, skill and high point scoring that makes the game of Gaelic Football, Ireland's number one sport.
The game is played at club and county level and the biggest competition in the game is the Inter-county championships, where teams from each of the 32 counties of Ireland battle it out for a place in the All Ireland Finals. These finals, held at Croke Park each September are the biggest sporting events in the country, as 80,000 people pack out Ireland's largest stadium, to cheer on their home county and hopefully watch their team lift the Sam Maguire Cup.
Over the years football has been dominated by County Kerry. Known as the Kingdom, Kerry has been crowned Kings of Football more times than any other county and are followed by fierce rivals Dublin. In recent years Ulster teams such as Armagh and Tyrone have risen to prominence.
The game has had numerous heroes throughout the years but the two that stand out are Kerrymen Mick O'Connell and Pat Spillane. Playing in the 1960s Mick O'Connell would row over from Valencia Island to the mainland for matches. Considered one of the most accomplished footballers of his day, Mick O'Connell played in nine All Ireland Finals for Kerry, winning four. Fellow Kerryman, Pat Spillane won eight All Ireland medals between 1975 and 1986 and is one now one of football's most well known commentators. And of course there is Jack Lynch, a successful footballer and hurler who won All Ireland medals with Cork in both sports, and went on to lead Ireland as Taoiseach (Ireland's Premier), during the 60s and 70s.
From the 1960s spin off matches have been played between footballers form the Gaelic leagues and from Australian Rules. In 1984 International Rules Football was officially born and each year see hard fought and often controversial Test matches played for the Cormac McAnallen Cup, between Irish and Australian teams, in each country concurrently. At the time of writing in 2012, these matches were tied with 8 series wins each. There is much debate about the game's future, with arguments regarding fair play and the possibility of the game being expanded to include South Africa playing in a three-country tournament. The game of Gaelic Football has clearly come a long way since it was first formally codified in 1887.
Each parish in Ireland has a Gaelic Football club and the game is played by over two thirds of Irishmen. With games played all over the country and virtually each week of the year, you could find a game to watch as part of your Ireland Vacation Experience.
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If staying in accomodation close to the main stadiums it is worth checking out a live match if only to see Kerry in action against the likes of Cork, Dublin and Tyrone.