Even Vatican is nuts about soccer

Vatican soccer bug revealed: Staff tourneys, clerical cups, avid fans

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A disease few talk about lies within the Vatican’s walls: soccer fever.

Several cardinals have been afflicted, and a many of the tiny city-state’s lay, Italian staff automatically were born with the soccer-mania bug.

So it wasn’t surprising when one high-ranking cardinal who is a well-known soccer fan was taken seriously when he joked that the Vatican should form its own team.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state and an ardent supporter of Turin’s Juventus team, told reporters during a Dec. 17 soccer match: “I cannot cross out (the possibility) that in the future the Vatican could set up its own soccer team” on a par with Italy’s top soccer leagues.

Media outlets ran with the news, even splashing speculation across their pages on who the future Vatican coach might be. A former Italian national team manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, whose sister is a nun, was fingered as a favorite.

But in a Dec. 18 interview with Vatican Radio, the cardinal either assured or disappointed when he said his comments had been in jest and turning cleat-clad Vatican soccer players into national competitors was “unfeasible.”

“We will continue playing our strictly amateur competitions,” he told reporters during a Dec. 18 tournament that pitted the Swiss Guard against St. Peter’s Basilica maintenance workers and another team of Vatican Museums’ staff. The Vatican Museums team won the tournament.

It wasn’t the first time Cardinal Bertone, who occasionally did radio commentary for Division A soccer matches while he was archbishop of Genoa, mused to reporters about a hypothetical Vatican dream team.

The Italian paper Il Giorno quoted the cardinal as joking that the Vatican’s fantasy roster would be: “Ratzinger coach, Ruini center forward, Sodano deep-lying forward, Tettamanzi on defense.”

But Cardinal Bertone wasn’t teasing when, during the summer madness of the World Cup, he pitched a tournament idea to the Catholic Italian Sports Center.

He told representatives of the center that Rome’s pontifical universities were a unique, untapped treasure trove of future sports heroes.

According to Father Claudio Paganini, pastoral adviser of the center, the cardinal told representatives of the Italian Sports Center: “We in Rome have a great opportunity — if you look at all the pontifical institutes, the entire world is represented all under our own roof.”

Father Paganini said the representatives loved the notion, and in mid-December, he announced the creation of the Clericus Cup.

When the cup kicks off in February, seminarians in Rome will be swapping their cassocks and clerical shirts for soccer jerseys, shorts and matching knee socks.

Organizers said they also expect the Vatican to hit the pitch and take part in the new amateur sports tournament.

Future priests studying at Rome’s pontifical universities, colleges and institutes are invited to form a team and “put themselves back in the game, dribbling, making saves and headers,” the sports center Web site said.

Instead of countries pitted one against another, Father Paganini said Cardinal Bertone saw the opportunity for national loyalties to disappear as African, Asian, European and American seminarians played together under the banner of a love for sport and the positive values the game fortifies.

Father Paganini said many of today’s priests and seminarians don’t realize what a valuable tool sports can be in evangelizing today’s world, especially youths.

He recalled the old days when it wasn’t unusual to see the village priest with a soccer ball under his arm, rounding up kids for a lively match in a field or church courtyard.

“There was much more involvement” of the church in the lives of youths, especially in organizing informal sports events, he said.

But, he said, “today the passion in the stadiums has degenerated” into a narrow-minded, egocentric frenzy that can sometimes spiral into violence.

“Wherever the church lacks a presence, well, that’s when that environment becomes impoverished” of values and ethics, he said.

“We hope (the tournament) is a success because today’s priests love the sacristy, kneeling and leaning on their elbows (in prayer), more than heading to the fields. As priests we have to return to being among the people,” said Father Paganini.

Italy has had a long tradition of seeing the soccer field as a place to teach religion, he said. Consequently, a number of Italian cardinals are avid and outspoken soccer fans.

A weekly Vatican sports roundup features Cardinal Bertone, Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini, a retired Vatican official, or Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes.

Cardinal Angelini’s loyalty to team Roma didn’t prevent him from recently congratulating Cardinal Saraiva Martins, who roots for Roma’s archrival, Lazio, after Lazio crushed Roma.

“I always like to see the better team win and Lazio was the better team” during that Dec. 10 match, the Italian cardinal said Dec. 11 on Vatican Radio.

However, Cardinal Angelini couldn’t resist to lob a bit of sarcasm when he joked that Lazio benefited from Cardinal Saraiva Martins in charge of creating saints. He said there were probably many holy men and women now in heaven who may be partial to interceding on Lazio’s behalf.

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