Soccer ball

Although promoted by Anglican pastors, popes love sport

The 20th and 21st centuries have given us one pope after another fascinated by the pitch.

At the end of the 19th century, Anglican ministers from the United Kingdom began to spread a whole new activity throughout Europe: football (currently known as “soccer” only in the United States). It was an immediate success, but the Protestant background made Catholics wary.

It was the Catholic youth who convinced the priests and then the bishops of the benefits of this new Anglo-Saxon sport. Saint John Bosco bears witness to this with tenderness: “How can wemake children happy, how can we bring them together? Throw a ball in the street and the children will arrive immediately.

Then began the golden age of relations between the Church and football: that of patronage, which flourished during the first half of the 20th century throughout Europe and then in the rest of the world.

At the same time, in Italy, the popularity of “calcio” (“football” in Italian) makes it the only modern “religion” capable of coexisting with the Church, and even the popes could not ignore this immensely popular passion. Benedict XV (1914-1921) and Pius XI (1921-1939) encouraged the construction of football pitches in their diocese of Rome, notably appealing during the interwar period to the powerful American organization of the Knights of Columbus.

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However, it was not until Pius XII (1939-1958) that a football team was officially received at the Vatican. It was Athletic Bilbao, the famous Basque team in the Spanish championship, who traveled to the Vatican in 1956 after playing and losing a final against AC Milan. Pius XII’s comment shows that the era of professionalism has not yet arrived: he praises the “sincere lovers of an activity to which [they devote themselves] with soul and life, putting into it a youthful ardor, a sincere effort.

Faith, an asset in the field

Pius XII also made a beautifully shot comparison with the ball, which shows his mastery of sports tactics:

In football as in everyday practice, and in order not to lose the match, it is often necessary to defend one’s own ground with courage, confidence and energy, if one does not want to be overwhelmed by the passions which are unleashed; often it is necessary to know how to behave in the difficult medium of the ground to find the moment to attack without losing sight of the movements of the adversary and the possible dangers for its own goal; often you have to move forward with intelligence, resolution and agility, in good harmony with the whole line. Don’t miss the right moment, and don’t let it go to waste.

His successor, John XXIII (1958-1963), was not a sporting pope and, as with other sports, he displayed a total lack of interest in football. This contrasts with the rest of the Roman Curia, where from then on you even see bishops and cardinals defending their teams. Paul VI (1963-1978) belonged to the latter group, showing a particular attachment to local and family football. He stated that “Anyone who goes out there and has faith, has extra gear.” Footballers would remember it, sometimes to the point of superstition!

Christ wearing the colors of Brescia Calcio

In 1965, Paul VI receives the players and managers of the football club of Brescia, his hometown. In his speech, with his characteristic intellectual speech, he underlined the spiritual dimension of football:

Sport itself has a moral and educational value of the first order: it is a gymnasium for developing strong virtues, a school of inner balance and outer control, a propaedeutics for the truest and most lasting achievements, for definitive and lasting victories… that is to say, those of the spirit!

On this occasion, the pontiff offered visitors an unusual painting, representing Christ dressed in white and blue, the colors of the team! This work, which shows that the universality of the Church does not exclude the defense of local identity, is still exhibited at the headquarters of Brescia Calcio.

A Guardian Pope

John Paul II, elected in 1978, was himself a footballer before becoming pope. In his youth, he played as a goalkeeper for his hometown club MKS Krakow. Those who remember him speak of him as an excellent goalkeeper and a great leader for his teammates. During his pontificate, he made many contacts with the world of football. He has met many times with delegations from national and local teams: Ireland, for example, during the World Cup in Italy in 1990, or rival clubs Lazio and Rome after their respective successes. He organized many charity matches and inquired about the results of matches between Poland and Italy. But his taste for football was nourished by simple joys.

Once, during a stay at Castel Gandolfo, important personalities awaited the Polish pope as he strolled through the gardens of his summer residence. His secretaries told him that they were waiting for him, but the pontiff did not listen to them: he looked at a little boy, the son of a gardener, who was playing ball. The secretaries insisted, but the pope shook his head firmly as if to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have time, now I have to play football.” He then exchanged, in front of the family and a photographer, a few passes with the little boy.

Cries of “Santosubito!” In the stadium

Highly appreciated by footballers who gradually became stars, John Paul II was the first pope to truly put great sportsmen at the service of the Church. Four days after his death, a high tension competition took place between Inter and AC Milan, the sworn enemies of the Lombard capital. At stake: a place in the semi-finals of the Champions League. As the two teams battled it out on the pitch, the music in the stands was different from normal: songs were played and banners were unfurled to pay tribute to the Polish pope. One of the banners already bore the words “Santo Subito” – a succinct phrase that can roughly be translated as “make him a saint immediately” – a slogan that was repeated often in St. Peter’s Square in the days following the John Paul’s death. It was a sign of the affection the team midfielder had for him.

A fervent supporter of Juventus Turin, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict XVI’s Secretary of State, decided to launch the Vatican Football World Cup, the Clericus Cup, in 2007. The tournament, which continues to be an annual event, sees priests from around the world compete on grass, on a pitch just a stone’s throw from the tiny Vatican state. It differs from other usual competitions in that it uses a blue card, an alternative to yellow and red cards, which instead of expelling the offending player, sends him to “purgatory” before allowing him to resume play. The Salesian Cardinal, convinced of the positive role football can play, especially for young people, constantly involves the Church in sport. Benedict XVI, for his part, is a fan of the Bayern Munich team.

“Generosity, camaraderie and beauty.”

With Pope Francis, the Vatican has a real football fan as Pope. However, rather than the glitz of business football, he prefers the amateurishness and fervor of the public stadiums of Buenos Aires. Member of the San Lorenzo fan club, whose monthly subscription he still pays, he has not watched a football match on television since 1990, when he sold his place. He admits, for example, that he never saw his country’s living legend Lionel Messi play, even though he hosted him at the Vatican on several occasions. Yet Pope Francis has given ‘la Pulga’ (as Messi is affectionately known) an important mission, as he has done for Samuel Eto’o, James Rodrigues, Gianluigi Buffon, Philippe Lahm and all the great football celebrities world, as evidenced by this speech given in 2013 during a reception during a friendly match between Italy and Argentina:

You, dear players, are very popular: people follow you very closely and not only on the pitch but also off it. It’s a social responsibility! Let me explain: during the game, when you are on the field, you show beauty, generosity and camaraderie. If a match lacks these qualities, it loses strength, even if the team wins. There is no room for individualism; Team coordination is essential. Perhaps these three qualities, beauty, generosity and camaraderie, can be summed up in a sporting term that should not be forgotten: “amateur”, passionate. It is true that national and international organizations are professionalizing sport, and so it should be. But this professional dimension should never set aside the initial vocation of an athlete or a team: to be amateurs. When an athlete, even a professional one, cultivates this “amateur” dimension, society benefits and this person reinforces the common good with the values ​​of generosity, camaraderie and beauty.


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The lure of the ball

Francis, who never ceases to remind footballers of the immense influence they exert on young people, at the same time often renews his praise of Pius XII’s love for sport; Pius XII remembered with emotion and joy having gone to El Gasometer Buenos Aires stadium in 1946. Like John Paul II, Francis also rediscovered the important playful dimension of patronage, even going so far as to send a video message to “football lovers” on the occasion of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which he saw as an opportunity to defend solidarity between peoples.

He seems to have understood the great power of football from an early age. In October 2019, he thanked the Italian national football team for visiting the children of the Vatican’s “Bambino Gesú” pediatric hospital, and he shared this memory with them:

The balloon has an attraction. I remember there was a small square a few meters from my house. We played there, but we didn’t always have a ball available, because at the time the ball was made of leather, it was very expensive. There was still no plastic, there were still no rubber bullets… There was a fabric bullet. Even with a ball of rag you can work miracles.


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