Thursday, 12 December 2013

The popes and their love of football

The Daily Star
Friday, November 1 2013
by Michael Glackin

Pope Francis has impressed people of all creeds with his humility and modest lifestyle since becoming leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Just as important for many though, is the fact that Pope Francis is also a well-known football fan, the sport that is akin to a global religion, one that that cuts across national and sectarian boundaries, and is played and watched by more than 800 million people, around one in eight of the global population.

Pope Francis can even claim credit for a bit of divine intervention last Sunday, when English Premiership strugglers Sunderland scored a late winner against their local rivals Newcastle United that lifted them off the bottom of the League. In case you missed it, the goal was scored in the dying minutes of the game, by a late substitute who hadn’t scored for the club this season.

A few days before the match, a beaming Pope Francis was photographed in St. Peter’s Square holding aloft a Sunderland football shirt emblazoned with “Papa Francisco” and offered to pray for the club before the big game.

Pope Francis is famously a card-carrying fan of San Lorenzo football club in his native Buenos Aires. Despite being domiciled in the Vatican Francis still pays his monthly club membership subs according to the club’s vice president, Marcelo Tinelli.

He also granted Italy’s and Argentina’s national football teams a private audience at the Vatican in August – an event one Italian newspaper headlined “Pope meets God” in a witty, or for some heretical, reference to Francis meeting Argentinian star Lionel Messi, currently the game’s top player.

But Francis isn’t the first pope to carry his love of the beautiful game into the Vatican.

Although unlikely ever to be photographed enthusiastically waving a football shirt, former Pope Benedict XVI is a supporter of current European Champions Bayern Munich. During his reign the Vatican even organized a team of Catholic priests to play a friendly game against the Palestinian national team in the Al-Khader Stadium outside Bethlehem. Palestine predictably won the match 9-1, although bizarrely the priests somehow managed to get to the end of the first half 0-0.

Pope Benedict granted audiences to a number of, mostly Italian, footballers who ensured he was photographed close to a team shirt, if never quite embracing it ala Francis.

But the papal record for audiences with football teams must surely rest with Pope John II.

He gave the Republic of Ireland football team a private audience during the World Cup in Italy in 1990 and famously revealed to Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner that he had also played as goalkeeper when he was growing up in Poland.

A few days after meeting the pope, Ireland were knocked out of the World Cup by a single goal. Legend has it that after the match team manager Jack Charlton turned to Bonner and said: “By the way, the pope would have saved that.”

More famously, John Paul II also granted a private audience to Italian club Napoli, which in those days included the brilliant but decidedly temperamental superstar Diego Maradona.

Typically, Maradona arrived at Vatican late and things went downhill at a rate of knots after that when the Argentinian proceeded to have an argument with the pope.

In his book, “I Am The Diego,” published in 2000, Maradona wrote:

“Yes, I argued with the pope. I argued with him because I was in the Vatican and I saw all these golden ceilings and afterward I heard the pope say the church was worried about the welfare of poor kids. So? Sell the ceilings, amigo! Do something!”

In what was likely to have been a quieter Vatican audience in 2004, John Paul II also met and blessed his beloved Polish national team.

He also had a lifetime membership of Barcelona, given to him by the Spanish giants after he celebrated Mass at the Nou Camp stadium in 1982.

In 1987 German club Schalke 04 made John Paul II an honorary member, again, after celebrating Mass at Schalke’s Parkstadion in 1987. Not to be outdone, Schalke’s bitter local rivals, Borussia Dortmund, awarded him the same accolade when John Paul II granted two of their players an audience in 2005 for their work in helping to stamp out child prostitution.

John Paul II is also known as the “protector” of Brazil’s Fluminense. The club’s famous chant is the “A BĂȘnç?o, Jo?o de Deus” – “Bless us, John of God,” a tune composed in the pope’s honor during his visit to Brazil in 1980. Legend has it Fluminense fans burst into the song in 1984, during a tense penalty shootout against rivals Vasco da Gama – Fluminense won the shootout and the Brazilian championship. It would be a quarter of a century before Fluminense repeated the feat.

However, the team John Paul II really supported was Krakow based KS Cracovia. This was the team he watched as a young man, and it appears to have been a love that remained with him throughout his life – just a few months before he died he granted KS Cracovia’s team and staff a private audience, his final meeting with a football club and one of his last Vatican audiences.

Then there’s Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the controversial former Vatican secretary of state who, among other things, called on Catholics to boycott Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code.

Bertone, a lifelong Juventus fan, who used to commentate on their matches for local radio while he was Archbishop of Genoa, has long dreamed of establishing a Vatican football team.

In 2006 he famously said – not entirely in jest – that he wanted to create a team that could compete in Italy’s top flight, “with Roma, Inter Milan, Genoa and Sampdoria.”

“If we just take the Brazilian students from our Pontifical universities we could have a magnificent squad,” he said.

However, Bertone had to be content with establishing the Clericus Cup, the annual football tournament between 16 teams from church seminaries in Rome which is now in its seventh year.

The holders for the last two years have been the North American Pontifical College, so the Clericus Cup is one of the rare (association) football competitions that can be said to be dominated by North America.

Incidentally there is also a Vatican City international team, which has been managed in the past by no less a personage than former Italy and Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni.

Vatican City is one of eight fully recognized sovereign states that are not members of FIFA. Its players are drawn from the Swiss Guard and other Vatican staffers but the team has only played three full international matches in 11 years, one draw and two defeats to Monaco. Pope Benedict regularly visited the team when it was in training during his papacy.

But lest football fans get too excited about the papacy’s love of the beautiful game, it is probably worth mentioning that earlier this month, Pope Francis officially launched St. Peter’s Cricket Club.

Undeterred by George Bernard Shaw’s belief that the English weren’t very spiritual “so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity,” Francis hopes the club will forge ties with cricket teams of other faiths, particularly in the Muslim world.

But for all Francis’ global ambition for it, the cricket club’s main aspiration at the moment appears to be what amounts to a local derby match against a Church of England 11 at Lord’s next year. If if he wants to really reach the masses, Francis should stick to The People’s Game.

Michael Glackin is a former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. This article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 01, 2013, on page 7.

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