Helsinki Harps Compete in Europe with Native Players

England. Spain. Turkey. Germany. USA. Finland.

These are countries you find represented at a Helsinki Harps ladies Gaelic football training. The team consists of over 20 players, and historically, at least a dozen nationalities. Only rarely in recent years, however – an Erasmus student here, a temporary work visa there – has the roster included anyone from Ireland. That hasn’t stopped the Harps from playing competitive football, whether at home in friendly blitzes, abroad in regional championships, or even in Ireland at the GAA World Games.


Coach Andrew Newby has high praise for the dedication shown by the Harps.
“The attendance rate and overall energy at training is exceptional, especially as almost all the players have other sporting commitments which need to be balanced.”


For the current Harps roster, a high point was reached during Round 1 of the Nordic Gaelic Football Championships held in Copenhagen on the first weekend of May. Despite its name, and in a first for the region, the tournament was not restricted to Nordic clubs. As part of an effort to heighten the focus on women’s football, other clubs from around Europe were invited to send an LFGA squad to Denmark. In addition to Helsinki, Malmo, Gothenburg, Stockholm, and Copenhagen, the draw featured teams from Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Brussels.


The team from Brussels went on to win the tournament, barely wrenching victory out of the hands of host club Copenhagen, but that came as little surprise – Belgium GAA is, and has been for some time, the largest Gaelic sports club in Europe.


The playoff between Belgium and Copenhagen was a story of its own, and the players who took part in it were a fitting representation of the brilliant women’s football that Europe is capable of producing. Helsinki’s story is a different one entirely, but one that is equally – if not more – representative of the ability of Gaelic sports to cross borders, unite communities, and spawn legacies.



It came as a surprise to many that Helsinki fielded a team at all. Nine months earlier, when Copenhagen GAA came for a friendly tournament in Helsinki, it was a struggle for the home club to find just nine players for the seven-a-side games. But over the long winter that followed, tireless recruiting bolstered the ranks, and the squad was strengthened with at least five new additions. Three of those, including one who had tried Gaelic football only twice prior, were part of the lineup for the Nordic Chamipionship on May 7th.


Making it to Denmark was a success, but only the beginning, and plenty of questions remained. How would the Harps fare against clubs like Copenhagen and Brussels, who each had enough players for two teams – many of whom were Irish-born, with decades of combined experience? Answers would come soon enough.


In Copenhagen, the Harps lost their first match on the day, the scoreline belonging firmly to their opponents from Prague. After an all-important coaching session in the interim, however, they returned to the pitch for their next match with a renewed sense of confidence. It paid off, and the Harps took a crucial win over one of the Copenhagen teams. It was an emotional victory for not only the players, but for their coaches and clubmates on the sideline.



Harps players discuss strategy at a half-time break in Copenhagen.


Out of the group stage, their next game would be against the team from Germany. Meanwhile, the Nordic men’s final was being played on an adjacent field, but nearly every eye was glued to the nail-biting match between Helsinki and Berlin.


The game started less than ideally for the Harps. The team had arguably over-achieved with its win versus Copenhagen, and if anything, Berlin were even stronger than Prague – the side they’d already lost to decisively. In the second half, however, the Harps stormed back from well down in the score. The women netted two quick goals, and tension started to build on the sideline. Due to time constraints, the tournament’s games were short, and this one was over all too soon, with one superbly kicked point by Berlin becoming the last line on the referee’s scorecard. It was that single point by which the German squad won.


It was a bittersweet defeat for the Helsinki women, who had shown incredible toughness to bring the game so close. Though a loss is never the result envisioned, in this case there was more than enough good cheer to go around. At day’s end, the Helsinki-Berlin game went down as a fifth-place playoff, meaning the Harps finished the tournament sixth out of nine teams.




Top, L-R: Bea Lindell 🇫🇮, Milla Suotamo 🇫🇮, Karoliina Heinonen 🇫🇮, Hanna Rotonen 🇫🇮, Coach Andrew Newby, Claudia Neiman 🇺🇸/🇪🇸, Paula Pekkarinen 🇫🇮, Coach Cathaoir Sona
Bottom L-R: Henriikka Kangaskoski 🇫🇮, Emine Arapkirli 🇫🇮/🇹🇷, Lotta Nyman 🇫🇮, Jenni Niemilä 🇫🇮, Raija Ijas 🇫🇮



Of the 11 players who traveled from Helsinki, five had never played in a GAA tournament abroad, four had less than one year of experience in the sport, two had only played in a single game previously, and one had never played Gaelic until the week before traveling to Copenhagen. Maybe most impressive of all, not a single player on the squad was Irish or had any significant Irish heritage. In fact, all except one were Finnish – not a lineup most would expect to see competing in a Gaelic tournament.


If only the tournament results are considered, Helsinki’s achievement may seem moderate. But to conflate match scores with what Gaelic games have accomplished in a given club, city, or region is to miss what the sports are truly about. Even more so than sport, a GAA club is – or at least, can be – a source of friendship and support, a home away from home, and even a lifestyle. In short, it is – or can be – a community.


An recent anecdote sums it up well. When one player came to her first-ever Gaelic football training (just a week before the Nordic tournament), she lost her engagement ring on the pitch. When news of the missing ring made it into the Helsinki club’s group chat, a team member promptly went back to the field to look for it, and numerous others immediately offered to do the same, despite it belonging, more or less, to a complete stranger. It’s been said many times by Harps who’ve hailed from Peru to Ireland to Vietnam: you come for the sports, but always stay for the people – and that is a legacy by which you can measure a club’s success. But if you ask the women from Helsinki who played in Copenhagen on May 7th, they’ll take their well-earned victory all the same.

When asked about what the future holds for the Harps’ LGFA squad, Newby has the following to say. “In the longer term we’d love to participate in another World Games in Ireland. But overall? There’s no reason for this group to have any limits to their ambitions.”


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