It is December 2015 in the only Irish pub in Leuven, Belgium, and a group of Irish students is meeting for Sunday brunch like they do every week. 

This particular Sunday is different from all others, however. Talk in Thomas Stapleton's Irish pub revolves almost solely around a kick about earlier that morning to ease exam fears and the idea to form the Belgian city's first GAA club is born. 

Within a month, the Earls of Leuven is an official, recognized GAA club. 

The club has gone from strength to strength since that faithful December brunch and is now close to celebrating its five-year anniversary. From humble origins, it has become a mainstay in the Belgian GAA scene. 

The club gets its name from the Flight of the Earls when Ulster lords fled persecution in the early 17th Century and traveled to France and Belgium, eventually reaching Leuven. The event is a watershed moment in Irish history and ended the old Gaelic order in Ulster. 

Moving back to the present day, however, the Earls of Leuven is a fast-growing club with a unique tale. 

The club was the first club in Europe to be set up and run completely students and, unsurprisingly, it faced a number of problems that more mature clubs wouldn't have to fathom in its formative years.  

The obvious problem was financing the new club. Since all members were fulltime students, income was not as readily available as it was in clubs throughout the world and sponsors were not queuing up to fund the club.

As a result, the club had to look to an unlikely source to provide assistance to travel for matches. 

That unlikely source was Father Juan Carlos Tinjuaca - a local parish priest from Bogota, Colombia. 

Father Tinjuaca is the president of the Earls of Leuven's official supporter's club and he lent a hand to the club by driving players all over the Benelux Region, which consists of Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. 

The Colombian priest would often be called upon at 6 a.m. to drive players to a game in the Benelux region and then return to Leuven for a funeral mass before driving back to the match to pick the players up. 

When his religious services were not required in Leuven, Father Tinjuaca was one of the Earls' most ardent supporters and his song and dance on the sidelines became synonymous with the club. He has even lined out for the club when it was short on numbers. 

The club was set to honor its most loyal supporter by hosting a five-year anniversary tournament in his name this September. The Juan Carlos Cup was due to include teams from all over Europe but COVID-19 has laid waste to those plans.

Club chairman Alan Fitzgerald said that the tournament would take place next year and that the club would hold some small celebrations later this year if it is safe to do so.

He said that Leuven is essentially one big campus and that the COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated a mass exodus of students returning home, which has affected squad numbers. 

The club's regular season has also fallen by the wayside as clubs across Europe cannot possibly plan to travel the continent in the midst of the pandemic. 

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The anniversary tournament was meant to be a celebration of the club's short history, but its founders can still celebrate the monumental work they have done in the last half-decade. 

The Earls of Leuven have come on leaps and bounds in their brief history. From a single-team club that regularly took "almighty trouncings" from local teams, they now boast two men's and two women's Gaelic football teams. The club is also attempting to add hurling and camogie to its repertoire. 

In 2018, the Earls of Leuven won the senior shield at the pan-European football championship and finished as the fifth-best team in all of Europe. 

Far removed from the "almighty trouncings" at the hands of local rivals, the club actually got one over against Belgian outfit Craobh Rua of Brussels in the final. 

But the club hasn't just grown in terms of ability. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the Earls of Leuven embarked on a trip to Valencia for a friendly competition and more than half of its roster was made up of Belgian players.

From its beginnings as a source of fun for Irish students, the club now plays an even more important role. It is helping to spread the GAA to places and people it would never touch if it were not for the endeavor of a few dedicated people who want to grow the game. 

The Earls of Leuven embody all that is good about the GAA and they continue to show that community spirit in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fitzgerald said that players have been very supportive of one another during the crisis and regularly check up with each other to boost morale. 

Let's hope the Earls of Leuven get to celebrate their big anniversary when all this is over. 

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