By Padraic Halpin and Lorraine Turner
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's national sports of Gaelic football and hurling won an unlikely new audience on Sunday when pictures of China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping kicking a football in Dublin's Croke Park stadium were beamed home to Beijing.
Xi, who chose Ireland as the only European stop of a trip that began in the United States last week, arrived in Dublin directly from the west of Ireland after touring a dairy farm and the picturesque Cliffs of Moher earlier in the day.
"He showed some admirable skills for his first time kicking on what is ... a very holy turf for us," said Alan Milton, a spokesman at the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
The vice-president's fascination with Ireland dates back to his first trip to Dublin in 2003 when he was a provincial party secretary, and he was introduced to the two sports by Ireland's then-president Mary McAleese in Beijing two years ago.
Xi was given a personal demonstration of both at the empty 80,000-seater Croke Park, Ireland's largest stadium and the scene of a massacre of footballers and fans by British troops during its fight for independence almost a century ago.
Xi showed a keen interest in the size and fitness levels of players as well as the sports' finances, GAA president Christy Cooney told journalists.
Ireland hopes to make the most of Xi's three-day visit to promote exports of anything from IT services to dairy products, as well as inward investment; Xi is due to attend an investment forum with some 300 companies on Monday.
Beijing also continues to follow Ireland's transformation from a developing agricultural economy to one that attracted international technology and drug companies, and is now showing first signs of rebounding from an economic crash.
FARMING AND HIGH-TECH
"Ireland and China have much to offer each other in food and agriculture, in high technology research and in investment. We should make every effort to realize that potential," Prime Minister Enda Kenny said in a speech welcoming Xi and his delegation to Dublin Castle for the evening. Two trade and investment agreements were due to be signed later.
Xi began his visit at a high tech zone near Shannon airport that inspired the building of a similar zone in Shenzhen, the pilot project of former leader Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms.
But Gaelic games, played exclusively by amateurs but often attracting larger crowds in Ireland than matches featuring millionaire professional soccer and rugby players, have proved a rather unlikelier export.
Gaelic football is analogous to soccer but played with both hands and feet, while hurling and its female equivalent camogie, played on the same pitch, use a stick often flailed at head height to propel a small, hard ball towards goal.
Many gifted players affected by Ireland's economic crisis have been forced to emigrate to find work.
But as a result Gaelic clubs have flourished in cities from Stockholm to Sydney, and emigrants have even used tournaments to develop business links. Thailand's finance minister was a keynote speaker at one recent Asian tournament.
In Beijing, where more Chinese girls than boys have taken to Gaelic sports, Colin Dixon, a finance professional who is also president of the city's Gaelic association, hopes to have a few new local players next week.
"Although it's very much an Irish game, we have players both male and female from Britain, China, America, France, Germany, Spain and Mauritius," he told Reuters.
"I'm sure when people see Xi in Croke Park they'll be asking about what this sport is, and we would certainly hope this will increase our presence in the Chinese community."
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin and Lorraine Turner; Editing by Kevin Liffey)