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Afghan twins leading ‘handball craze’ at Cavan school

“You can play it anywhere, you just need a wall and a ball to play.”

This is how 11-year-old Ehsanullah Ahmanzai describes the game of handball.

Together with his twin Subhanullah, the pair stormed to success at an All-Ireland handball competition last weekend.

The brothers, who were born in Afghanistan and moved to Cavan when they were three years old, have been playing handball since they were six.

Now fifth class pupils at St Felim’s NS in Cavan town, they got through to the All Ireland Cumann na mBunscol under 13s doubles finals held at the National Handball Centre in Croke Park.

Subhanullah (L) and Ehsanullah say their family is very proud of what they have achieved

While it was technically non-competitive, the twins won all three matches against the top players from Leinster, Connacht and Munster.

The boys say their family is very proud of what they have achieved and that it was their older brothers, who are past pupils of St Felim’s, who got them into it.

“They used to bring us to practice, we used to watch them and they gave us some techniques to practice,” said Subhanullah.

He said he enjoys playing the game and taking part in competitions.

“It’s a non-competitive sport, there’s not too much rules in it, it’s a simple sport, an inexpensive sport.

Handballs are cheap, €3 can buy them in the sports shop, so it’s a fun sport,” he said.

While he enjoys the training, Ehsanullah said it can be a “little bit hard”, but that the brothers play every day.

“We play handball, in a week, I would say every day. In school every day, at weekends we go out to St Pat’s (a local secondary school) and play with older boys and sometimes my brothers,” Ehsanullah said.

“It’s like a hobby, you can play it anywhere you just need a wall and a ball to play,” he said.

Their success is part of a wider ‘handball craze’ that has taken hold of St Felim’s in recent years.

“There seems to be a craze at the moment for the handball. The main reason it’s so popular is it’s such a simple game to play,” said school principal Anne Donnellan.

With 37 different nationalities among the school’s 265 pupils from second to sixth class, Ms Donnellan said that handball has become the “language of the school”.

“Once you can hit the ball and return it, it speaks for itself. It’s like the language of the school. We’ve lately discovered that it’s a currency of the school is the handball itself. Once you’re carrying a ball, you’re popular, you’ve got a little bit of status and everyone wants to play.

“We have students arriving from all over the world, and every child who comes tries they game and they love it,” she said.

The sport’s popularity in the school is probably not surprising when you learn that one of St Felim’s teachers, and the twins’ coach, is five-time world champion Paul Brady.

Once the boys reach under 14s the game will start to become competitive

Mr Brady has played handball at the top level for 20 years and has taken home All Ireland and World handball championships titles.

“Every kid nearly in the school plays it, they love it. Given the demographic, a lot of the kids are not part of GAA clubs and this sport provides an avenue into the GAA for them that otherwise may not be there, and it’s a great sport in itself, obviously,” he said.

“Any wall, any ball” is the motto, he said.

“I think the accessibility of one wall makes it very attractive,” Mr Brady said.

He’s been helping twins Ehsanullah and Subhanullah train for their competitions.

“They love the game, they train hard. They’ve been out there in competitions and doing quite well,” he said.

He said they played in the Ulster finals the last two years and improved a lot over the year.

“They won Cavan and Ulster and went to the national finals in Croke Park and won all their games, so they’re showing a lot of potential, a lot of improvement if they can keep going,” he said.

Once the boys reach under 14s, the game will start to become competitive and that is where they are headed next year.

However, Mr Brady said there is a lot of talent in the school yard.

“There’s a lot of really good players in the school, showing a lot of potential and talent,” he said.

At little break, the yard is full of boys hitting the ball off every surface visible, so much so that more courts are in the works.

“We have plans afoot to build two new walls at the minute,” said Principal Donnellan.

“We haven’t enough space, the boys are playing off the windows, any surface that takes a ball,” she said.

Both boys have big dreams to follow in the footsteps of trainer Mr Brady.

“My goal would be to reach the American championships, the worldwide championships,” said Subhanullah.

“I would say I want to move on and go professional so I can win and represent Ireland for the competitions in America,” added Ehsanullah.

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