Paradise Lost: Football and the Vatican

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Damiano Benzoni

All pictures must be credited to Damiano Benzoni – dinamobabel.wordpress.com. Further material can be found at this link.

“If this goes in, the score is even”, the referee tells the goalie Javier Ángulo Coyotzi. From the stands, an acordeón eerily plays the beginning of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor as PSG’s José Ignacio Tola Claux approaches the penalty spot. Regular time ended in a 2-2 draw – the Mexicans scoring through a brace by their new signing João Kalevski, a Brazilian of Ukrainian descent. Two early mistakes from the spot almost killed any hope for the French, but after a spectacular save by their keeper on the third Mexican penalty, Tola Claux now has the chance to get his team back in the game. He kicks it to the keeper’s right, Coyotzi dives and deflects it on the post. The ball sidespins all along the goal-line, clips on the other post and finally stops without crossing the line. The Mexicans erupt, Coyotzi is brought to triumph before the stands, where the acordeón is now playing Cielito Lindo. PSG also salute their supporters, then both teams join in a circle at midfield. Under the shade of the Saint Peter’s Cupola, they pray together: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”. Then the Mexican captain thanks God on behalf of everyone and pays homage to the other team: “They were our opponents today on the pitch, but in everyday’s battle for our faith, they are our brothers”.

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Tola Claux isn’t the latest signing of the Paris Saint-Germain’s record spending spree: PSG stands for Pontificio Seminario Gallico, a French Pontifical Seminary whose team has just lost on penalties against the team of Mater Ecclesiae. PSG and Mater Ecclesiae are two of the seminaries that annually take part to the Clericus Cup in Rome. The tournament, which reached its seventh edition, is played by priests and seminarians of sixteen Pontifical universities, seminaries and congregations around Rome. Matches last one hour, each team has a time-out per half and the referee might hold out a blue card to send a player to the sin-bin. After each match, both teams gather for a moment of prayer and even in the pool rounds, draws are not admitted. This is the reason why Mater Ecclesiae went to penalties with PSG in the second match of Pool B. Their striker, João Kalevski, has scored six goals in three matches and seems set to become the best scorer of the tournament for the second time, after his 12 goals in 2010. Kalevski also has a peculiar record in the Clericus Cup: he has taken part to six editions, each time playing for a different team.

DSCF4912xThe Clericus Cup is organised by the Italian CSI (Centro Sportivo Italiano), a Catholic association which has more than thirteen thousands affiliated sports societies and whose mission is to “promote sports as a moment of education, growth, commitment and social aggregation”. The ecclesiastic counsellor of the CSI is father Alessio Albertini, brother of the former AC Milan midfielder Demetrio Albertini. When asked about his support for his brother’s former team, father Albertini answers: “One also has to know the Devil”. The competition’s trophy is a ball wearing a saturno hat, and the tournament’s motto for this edition is Succede solo a chi ci crede: it only happens to those who believe. The venue is, quite aptly, an Oratorio: one of the six thousand Christian youth centers in Italy – the Italian children’s choice for playing football on Sunday afternoons.

DSCF6013xThe Oratorio San Pietro lies just a couple hundred metres away from the walls of Vatican City and boasts two artificial grass pitches. From the stands of the main field, the Cardinal Spellman ground, there’s an impressive view of the towering Saint Peter’s Cupola. During the days of the papal vacancy, after Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement, it was there, rather than on the Cardinal Spellman ground, that the Holy See and the Church were playing their most important match. Cardinals from all over the world were gathered in Rome for the Conclave, in order to select the new successor of Saint Peter. Some Cardinals were expected at the ground for the match between the outgoing champions North American Martyrs and the Collegio San Paolo. The torrential rain under which the match was played discouraged them from showing up. One of the papabili, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, gave his patronage to the competition as head of the Pontifical Council of Culture. In his endorsement letter, he wrote: “It is urgent to recover the deeply educative dimension of the sport as an instrument of self-knowledge, of openness towards the other, of overcoming one’s own limits and barriers and – ultimately – as a place for discovering God”. The importance of such sporting dimension was recognised also by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, long before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, as is recalled by the chaplain of the Italian Olympic delegation Monsignor Mario Lusek. Ratzinger, at the eve of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, noted that such was the involvement and passion of people all around the world in sports events that “it certainly must relate with something humanly primordial”. The passion for the game is an escape towards freedom from the enslaving chains of everyday’s life. More than that, it is a longing for a paradise lost.

DSCF5594xFather Andrés Bonello is not only the Argentinean captain and battling regista of Verbo Incarnato, the team from the Incarnate Word seminary of Montefiascone. He is also the Rector of the institute. He set up the opener in his team’s 2-1 win against the Guanelliani, a team supported by an indefatigable old priest with an umbrella in the stands. The goal was scored by his conational Tito Paredes, who dedicated the score to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whose image he keeps under his right shin-pad. Father Bonello is enthusiastic about sports: “Sports is really felt in our religious congregation. Our founder wanted his priests to play sports in order to help the soul win over the flesh, over tiredness. In order for the spirit to prevail”. According to father Bonello, in times of papal vacancy the Clericus Cup is a welcomed distraction for the priests, who are living a particular moment. Their minds are set on the Conclave and a week of intense prayer awaits them. For this reason, the tournament paused during the first week-end of vacancy. Being co-nationals with the newly-elected Pope Francis, all eyes were set on them on the following match, the pool decider against Redemptoris Mater. Before entering the field, the team unfurled a banner with “Viva el Papa!” written on it. After defeat, father Bonello led the post-match prayer in dedication to Pope Francis: the two teams softly hummed the Salve Regina against the background of the floodlit Cupola shining in an early spring evening sky.

DSCF4906xThe Clericus Cup is also a moment of community, enabling participants to get in touch with fellow priests and seminarians from other congregations and universities, as underlines the captain of the Pontificio Collegio Brasiliano team Aldemir Benaver, midfielder and student of biblical exegesis. He scored the only goal in his team’s 4-1 loss against three-time champions Redemptoris Mater, the best winning team in the history of the Clericus Cup. Strangely enough for a team made of people who devoted their lives to God, the chant of their supporters celebrates the colour of their jerseys with the words “Yellow and blue, my only faith, yellow and blue, you are everything to me”. Support, although crowds are tiny, is heated for some teams. South Americans are – predictably – among the more noisy, while the supporters of PSG and of the North American Martyrs seem to be the most organised: masked priests, chants, flags and mascots reign on the stands. The Pontificio Collegio Urbano draws a lot of pride in the fact that its premises are actually inside the boundaries of the State of the Vatican City. Its team dons the colours of the microstate and its supporters, chanting endlessly their “Viva, viva Urbano!” throughout the match, wave a Vatican flag proudly.

DSCF6585xThe Cardinal Spellman ground also used to be the home of another important Vatican football event: the national championship, played by employees of the Vatican State. One of the main officials of the league, Giancarlo Taraglio, a retired employee of the Vatican Museums, explains: “We used to play eleven-a-side on the same field as the Clericus Cup, but this year we could field only four or five teams, so we decided to play eight-a-side and have managed to organise a league with nine teams”. Taraglio takes great pride in the fact that the institution he used to work for was the one which introduced football in the Vatican State. The date, ironically, was the 6/6/1966. If the Clericus Cup finds its setting in an Oratorio, the Vatican football league draws from the other great institution of Italian social football: recreational workers clubs. It all started with matches between janitors and restorers, then the second team – the Gendarmerie – joined in and by 1968 four teams played among themselves. In 1972 the Attività Calcistica Dipendenti Vaticani (Vatican Employees Football Activity, put short the Vatican FA) was founded and a twelve-team league was set up. The founding father of the Vatican League – who also played a role in the creation of the Clericus Cup – was doctor Sergio Valci, an official of the Health Assistance Fund of the Holy See who ran the ACDV until his passing last year. The ACDV totals around 250 affiliates among players and officials. Ever since 1985 also a national cup tournament has been played, and starting from 2007 the winners of the two tournaments confront in the Vatican Super Cup. Furthermore, the ACDV organises the national team of the smallest nation on earth – perhaps the only one not featuring a football pitch inside its borders. Matches, though, are scarce, and the ACDV refused to join the NF-Board to avoid being forced to play politically compromising opponents

DSCF6529xThe last three Vatican titles were won by Dirseco – the Direction of Economical Services of the Holy See. The team is now named Borgorosso FC, after the fictional team of a famous 1970 Alberto Sordi movie in which a Vatican employee inherits a football team from his father. Pantheon is the team of the Vatican phone company, Dirtel the team of the Vatican mail, Tipografia Vaticana the one drawn among the typographers of the L’Osservatore Romano, the Holy See’s own newspaper. All players are non-clericals, although in the past a handful of priests have played in the league: among them Monsignor Fortunato Frezza, who also used to be a chaplain for AS Roma. Most players are Italians: apart from them there are a couple Albanians, a Portuguese from the Azores and the Swiss Guards of Guardia FC. Although the latter tend to be the youngest and fittest team in the league, Guardia FC never managed to claim a title, as Giancarlo Taraglio explains: “Their draft usually lasts one year, one year and a half. They never have the time to build up a cohesive team”. As well as the prayers of the Clericus Cup footballers, also the organisation of the Vatican City championship is affected by the Conclave, as Taraglio explains the night before voting procedures start: “It is very rare that the first scrutiny ends up in a fumata bianca [the white smoke emission announcing a new Pope has been elected]. Should that happen, though, we would be forced to move tomorrow night’s matches, as the players of the Swiss Guard will have to take service and the ones from the typography will be needed to print the special edition”. Even if the first smoke was black, the following night the Swiss Guards were ordered back in their barracks at the last minute and Guardia FC had to forfeit the match against Fortitudo 2007.

DSCF5332xThe whole Catholic world, the Vatican employees of the ACDV and the seminarians and priests of the Clericus Cup all kept their eyes glued to the Sistine Chapel chimney, awaiting for white smoke to raise in the sky and for a new Pope to set the future destiny of the Church, in such a critical moment for Christianity. After Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected and became Pope Francis, one of the first things we learned about him was about his passion for football and for Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro, a Buenos Aires football club entitled to a saint and which owes much in its early history to a Salesian priest, father Lorenzo Massa. The priest opened the gates of his Oratorio to a bunch of boys previously playing on the streets of the barrio of Almagro, little knowing that he was about to be among the founders of a future fourteen-time Argentinean championship winner. Father Massa would be portrayed by the actor Ángel Magaña in a 1954 movie called El cura Lorenzo. Can, after all, the Word spread through the ball game? “I believe that today for the Church, the world of football can be a Pastoral field. A lot of boys and girls can be found, not for reading the Gospel to them, but to communicate to them our Christian values”, says father Maturan Sadio, PSG’s Senegalese player-coach. Father Sadio enjoyed a brief career as a professional footballer in Senegal, playing in the Premier League for Espoir, Casa Sport and Linguère – the team where Diouf started his career. At twenty-six, he retired to devote all his time to his theological studies and, when he landed in Rome and made his debut in the Clericus Cup, he saw the proof that what he felt about football was possible. This kicked-off his dream to set up a football school in Ziguinchor, the capital of the separatist region of Casamance, in southern Senegal. Even before leaving his country, father Sadio had gathered some street kids and tried to participate to their education through football. His aim is to protect the future of the kids of Ziguinchor from the violence of the civil war: “I want to offer them a space to experience living in community and difference, and cultivating peace, as Saint Francis of Assisi said”. After all, father Sadio’s dream is not far from the idea expressed by Pope Benedict: football as a paradise lost.

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