Ask a person on the street to name ten sports played in Ireland, and you’re unlikely to find anyone who lists Quidditch amongst their top ten. Unless, of course, the person you ask is Stefan Scheurer, the President of Quidditch Ireland, who reliably informs me that Quidditch is a sport on the up, not only in Ireland, but globally: “There are between 35 and 40 countries around the world who play Quidditch, in different developmental stages – for example the UK has 50 teams, whereas in New Zealand there are only a handful.” This is certainly an impressive haul for a sport only celebrating its twelfth birthday this month, so how exactly did Quidditch go from a fringe sports invented by a group of American students to one of the fastest growing competitive sports in the world?
The key, it seems, is the level of professionalism with which the sport conducts itself. “In the beginning, the aim was simply to throw balls into wheelie-bins, and for the first few years the players were mostly Harry Potter fans. Then, after three or four years it became popular in big sports colleges in the USA, and from there the focus switched to the athletic side of the game.” Nowadays, the sport would be almost unrecognisable to the two Vermont students who patented the game – not only have wheelie-bins evolved into the three hoops recognisable to any fans of the fictional version of the game, but there is an exhaustive list of rules covering everything from tackling laws (the sport is a contact one) to who can and cannot legally score points. What’s more, the sport does its best to replicate its fantastical counterpart as closely as possible. Whilst there is obviously no flying, broomsticks are still a vital piece of equipment and there is even a version of the snitch in the form of a man in a yellow suit with a tennis ball velcro-taped to his back, the capture of which ends the game and awards the captors 30 points.
The impressive organisation doesn’t end there, however. Indeed, there is an entire international framework within which Quidditch teams operate. The International Quidditch Association organises the World Cup and European Games, both of which are played every two years. Indeed, at this July’s European Games there were fifteen nations present, whilst the 2016 World Cup boasted 23 competing teams. Furthermore, at club level, Scheurer explains, the European Quidditch Cup is the barometer by which success is measured on the continent, with Belgium’s Antwerp QC winning the 2017 trophy, emerging triumphant on home soil.
The seriousness with which the sport conducts itself can even be seen at the most grassroots levels. A typical training session as Scheurer illustrates it, begins with warm-ups and stretches, and progresses through tackling training in pairs of two. The session will then build through practice matches, which start with basic movement, with layers of the game – such as marking and seeking – slowly added until full games of 7 versus 7 are underway. These sessions are by no means infrequent either, with the Dragons averaging three hours of training a week. Although, Scheurer confesses with a smile, most training sessions end with the squad retiring to a pizza restaurant to indulge themselves.
Indeed, it is this level of professionalism that is perhaps the best way of combatting any image problem that might be associated with the sport. “In the UK, the Quidditch Premier League is played all over the UK, with the final being held in a rugby stadium – Hull KR’s Craven Park),” Scheurer informs me with a hint of pride. “It garnered massive media attention – the results were published on the BBC Sports page.” Sceptics of Quidditch’s claim to legitimate sporting status have, it seems, run up against a brick wall – there can be no doubt that, whilst the sport may look radically different to traditional sports, it has gained a following to match that of any niche sport.
Admittedly, though, it is hard not to be incredulous when first presented with the idea of a magical sport from a fantasy novel being placed alongside sports such as rugby and football. Was he, I ask Scheurer, always enamoured of the game, or did he come round to Quidditch after an initial bout of scepticism? “What’s nice about Quidditch is it’s a very welcoming sport. I was on an exchange programme in Australia, where Quidditch is very popular, and I knew being in a new city that it would be a quick way to make friends. So, I tried it and loved it. Then, I came back to Ireland and realised there was no team here, so I set one up.” Indeed, the welcoming nature of the sport is clear to see – the Dublin team is populated with ex-patriots, with the star player a Brazilian who credits Quidditch with helping him settle in the city.
Yet, the sport still remains peripheral in this country, currently nowhere close to matching the UK in terms of competitiveness and broad appeal. In fact, there are only two competitive teams on the island – the Dragons in Dublin and Queen’s University Quidditch in Belfast – from which the national team, who are travelling to compete at an international tournament in Odense at the end of the month, can draw their players. As the President of Quidditch Ireland, it is Scheurer’s job to grow the sport in Ireland, and he’s not short of ideas on how to do so. “The aim is to have at least four teams by the new year. We’d like to have more university teams – there is a great rivalry generally between UCD and Trinity, and we’d like that to transfer over to Quidditch.” These aims are not pipe dreams, either – teams in Galway and Cork are close to reaching fruition, which will leave each province represented by at least one Quidditch side. Beyond that, the aim is to join the UK’s Quidditch Premier League with as many teams as possible, a message that Scheurer has been spreading up and down the country in the form of touring training camps, which have been embraced by newcomers finding that a lot of skills from GAA and rugby are easily transferrable to Quidditch. Indeed, it is this transfer of skills that Scheurer feels optimistic will aid the growth of the sport: “The newcomers to our training sessions often overwhelm us with how well they take to tackling, ball handling and positioning.”
Perhaps, then, in the coming years, when you stop that person on the street with your sporting inquisition, Quidditch might not be so far down the list of Irish national sports.