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Football purist, realist and general sports fanatic. Interested in all aspects of the game, from all corners of the earth.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Old Head on Broad Shoulders. The Israel Ilunga Interview

“Keep your head down, keep your head down, keep your head down”. The simple advice Israel Ilunga offers to hopeful youngsters across the country who already look up to him as a role model and ask him for advice through social networks at the tender age of eighteen. While the words may seem basic and uninspiring they’re ones that haven’t left his head since his foster parents Desmond and Anne passed them on to him the day before he took to a GAA field for the first time at the age of eleven.

Israel was born just before the Second Congo War, a bitter conflict that claimed the lives of over five million people and failed to come to an abrupt halt despite the introduction of a transitional government in 2003. “My parents tried to hide me from seeing everything around me but I remember all the bad things; children having nothing to eat, going outside and fearing you’re going to get shot”. Family members were involved in the violence that continued to spill over and in 2007, fearing their well-being; the Ilungas fled Africa for Dublin in the hope of a better future.

Israel was placed into foster care immediately and found a new home in Castletown, County Westmeath with the Dowlings. Initially unable to read or write, the Westmeath prospect was slowly integrated into Ireland through the family who nowadays tease him to ensure he never gets too big for his size 12 boots.

There was just one cultural trait he failed to warm to. Coming from a soccer background he couldn’t fathom a sport where people use their hands despite ‘foot’ featuring in the title. “I absolutely hated it. I remember watching Tyrone play a match for the first time and I couldn’t understand why they kept allowing people drag others down”.

Desmond tried and failed to convince Israel to give the sport a try but in the end he was guilt-tripped into participating. “I was over here two or three years”, a wry smile stretching across his face, “when one of my Dad’s friends started getting angry at me; he wouldn’t talk to me when he visited the house until I joined the club, and luckily enough it’s been working out good enough since”.

He enjoyed the experience, but prior to his first match Desmond and Anne, aware that a child of Congolese descent dictating play on the rural pitches of Westmeath would be unique and somewhat unusual sight, sat him down and advised him on how to conduct himself on the field of play in general but particularly should he experience any form of racism. “If I laugh and smile in someone’s face it’s gonna hurt them more than if I hit him in the face”.

Israel’s powerful frame provides a direct contradiction to this theory, but it’s one he and his family firmly believe in. “I used to get angry about it but my foster parents took me apart and that’s the way I do things now. I would never hit a lad, never, it’s not my nature, but I wouldn’t be allowed anyway”, he says with a cheerful exhale. “Even when there’s any bit of pushing, any 50/50 balls, all I can hear from the pitch is my Dad in the stands telling me to calm down, every game!”

Despite feeling that overall he’s been accepted more than he had imagined possible Israel has experienced certain hardships as a result of the colour of his skin. After successfully making the county’s under-14 team management were forced to drop him as some voices raised questions about his age.

Since then however his career has blossomed. He has complete confidence in his own ability and enjoys having the opportunity to mark inter-county players while representing his club. “At the age of seventeen I was one of the main players, starting every senior championship game and marking the likes of Kieran Martin and Callum McCormack. It was crazy but I love a challenge, that’s the best way to learn“.

It’s also not the only way to learn. The defender takes in championship matches in Cavan and Longford as well as his own county in order to study the game and discover how he himself can improve as a player. With this work ethic complimenting his assured personality it should be no surprise he became a fixture at the heart of the Westmeath minor full-back line last season despite having a year to spare at the age-group.

His biggest achievement to date however was leading his school Cnoc Mhuire to the All-Ireland Colleges title in 2013. The fact that he transformed his school’s defense into an impregnable citadel during the final despite carrying a broken hand made the success even more remarkable. These feats help explain why the charismatic Isreal, or Izzy to his friends and family (he jokes that I’m the only person he knows who addresses him by his formal first name), has been embraced and protected in his community.

“The club always back me, there’s not a chance my school manager James Carroll would let me suffer in any way if any form of racism occurred, I run out in Cusack Park and have people cheering my name, I feel incredibly lucky”.

This fortune is compounded by the mature eighteen year olds’ life experience. “We think we have problems, but every time I take to the pitch I say to myself “God, I’m lucky I have this”. If you were to compare it with Congo, kids have nothing, so I play as if it’s going to be my last time playing at any level, I realise how lucky I am”.

Having seamlessly integrated into his community as well as one of Ireland’s most cultural institutions it’s jokingly suggested that he has become a real ‘Paddy’.

“No, jaysus no”, his rich voice declares with an undeniable Midlands’ accent, “but I am proud to say that part of me is Irish. I came over here when I was so young at nine so I’ve got the accent and everything; I play gaa (not to be confused with GAA). I’d be more Irish than I would be African, truthfully”.

This feeling manifests itself in a passionate rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann before the whistle is blown ahead of every game. “I love it, I think there’s nothing better to get you going before a game than the national anthem. I’m getting the opportunity to play Ireland’s game, as a mark of respect you should learn the national anthem, the way I see it you have to. It’s a part of us, it’s ours and it shouldn’t be any different because I was born in Africa”.

Of course without the guidance and protection of his foster family Israel’s path could have been very different. “Looking at sport, they go to every game I play. They wouldn’t miss it”. The Castletown-Finea man isn’t just referring to his parents, he feels cherished by their extended family. “My Grandad nearly had a heart attack when we were playing the All-Ireland, no joke! He’s 79 and he’d be cursing like mad when he’s watching the match, my Granny would be giving out to him! They recorded the match and watched it about 20 times”.

“I’m 18 now, I’m off the books, I can leave and live anywhere I want but this is where I want to be”.

Unsurprisingly this sentiment is echoed with the Dowlings, although they won’t have a prodigious GAA talent to slag and keep in check around the house next year. “I get to go to college next year and I’m lucky enough to be considered for a scholarship”.

The sense of gratitude is easily detectable in his voice. “Ireland has given me a life”, he humbly declares. UCD and Carlow IT have been in contact but Israel is leaning towards Carlow’s GAA Sport and Exercise course as it allows him to pursue a career he’s genuinely interested in. “Football can’t be the be all and end all, you need something to fall back on. I remember listening to Jason Sherlock, one of the greats, speak about losing everything in the space of five seconds through injury and I finally copped on; I’m not always going to have football”.

It’s clear that the young man too reserved to mention the fact that he’s hoping to get home as soon as possible to relax ahead of a trip to Dublin for medical tests in the morning carries an old head on his gargantuan shoulders, a testament not only to himself but also his family. He has been in contact with
Dublin’s Ciaran Kilkenny over the past year, a figure he aspires to be like and one he believes epitomises everything good about the GAA, or gaa.

“I asked him if he could come down to present the All-Ireland medals to the school and he instantly responded ‘definitely, when is it’? So it was two days after his operation, he was only on crutches and he still came down. Never mind the fact he’s an unbelievable player he still came and I have tremendous respect for him for that. That’s something I want to do when I grow up, drop down to smaller clubs who might not have as many opportunities and give young lads a confidence boost”.

Israel Ilunga has the talent and the personality to become the first of his kind at a significant level of the GAA. No African player has ever made it as far as a Senior Championship game in Croke Park. The history of the GAA is a history of the Irish people and a new page is about to be written.

“Every challenge is an opportunity; you make your own destiny”. Some would say he already has.

*on May 22nd Isreal was granted Irish citizenship after eight long years in Ireland

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