According to a common belief, football is like religion. Indeed, it is a religion. Football fans are entirely devoted to their favourite team. They know by heart the names of the Starting XI as if they were the Ten Commandments. The stands of the stadium are like the pews of a church; people seat there every weekend, the former for enjoying football, the latter for attending the mass.
Religion does care about football and the relationship can occasionally be troublesome. Take the case of the harsh rivalry between catholic Celtic and protestant Rangers in Glasgow, or the sectarianism promoted by Beitar Jerusalem fans. But if you are looking for a peaceful connection, the Vatican City is definitely the place to be.
There will be no colourful flares or noisy drums this Saturday at the Pontificio Oratorio di San Pietro leisure centre in the hills, just above the Vatican. Here, on an astroturf pitch that gives a breathtaking view of the monumental dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, a team between Gregoriana and the North American Martyrs will lift the Clericus Cup. It is a competition for priests and seminarians of the Catholic Church, organised by Christian organisation Centro Sportivo Italiano.
Created in 2006, the Clericus Cup can hardly be considered a national championship, since the Vatican has a population of only 832 inhabitants. It should be portrayed as a sort of papal World Cup, with footballers coming from 65 different countries. Needless to say, the Brazilians are the most gifted, but Americans, Mexicans and, naturally, Italians provide a decent level as well.
The Clericus Cup is structured exactly like the European Championships – 16 teams are divided into four groups and eight of them advance to the second phase, a knock-out stage with round of 16, last 8 and semi-finals. A peculiarity of the competition is the use of the “blue card”, which implies a five-minute exclusion due to unsportsmanlike conduct.
This year, the trophy – a ball wearing a clergyman’s hat – will be contested between the reigning champions of Pontificia Università Gregoriana and the North American Martyrs, who have reached the final match for the third time but have never triumphed.
In the semi-final, Gregoriana overwhelmed Sedes Sapientiae thanks to a penalty kick converted by Jonas Klur, a German midfielder who lionises Bastian Schweinsteiger and dedicated the winning goal to Pope Benedict XVI, a proud Bayern Munich fan like Jonas. On their part, the Martyrs defeated Mater Ecclesiae with a comfortable 2-0 marked by the goal of Mark Paver, an Anglo-American supporter of Manchester United.
However, the Clericus Cup is only the most recent sporting phenomenon in the shadow of the dome. Football was introduced in the Holy See in the 16th century and the first ever match took place on 7 January 1521 in the presence of Pope Leo X, according to Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. The match was played following the rules of Calcio fiorentino, a primeval form of football practised in Florence.
Later on, the two local teams Belvedere and Rospigliosi faced each other many times, this being a sort of anticipation of the Eternal City derby between Lazio and Roma.
The first attempt of football in modern era was embodied by a four-team tournament in 1947, yet the Vatican national championship was set up only in 1973. Sergio Valci, a former amateur defender and current head of the Vatican City’s football association, was assigned the organisation of the tournament, his passion for football being renowned in the Holy See.
Financially supported by Cardinal Sergio Guerri, the first ever Vatican championship was contested among seven teams who played their matches on Monday nights at the Pontificio Oratorio. L’Osservatore Romano won the title thanks to three “unstoppable typographers”, Valci recalls in an interview given to the homonymous newspaper.
Notable players of those years are goalkeeper Antonello Belli, who played for the Poste (“the post”) after his early years as Lazio young teamer, and strikers Bruno Mariotti and Gino Di Manno, who on the contrary grew up in Roma academy.
The Coppa Vaticano, local version of the FA Cup, was introduced in 1985, but nine years later the national league was staged for the last time. No official tournaments were played for more than a decade, at least until the establishment of the Clericus Cup.
Once again, Valci was one of the prominent figures who promoted the formation of this new competition. He found a supporter in Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, an ardent Juventus fan who commented some Rome derbies for the Vatican Radio and matches in Genoa when he was the archbishop of the city. Moreover, when Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope he told Italian newspaper La Repubblica that “the Church has found its Beckenbauer”.
This is not the only juicy anecdote surrounding the Clericus Cup. Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, is believed to have faced legendary Brazilian right winger Garrincha whilst playing for Benfica academy, German magazine Der Spiegel reported.
Everyone in the Holy See still remembers when Bertone announced in 2006 the possibility of fielding a Vatican team in the Italian professional league. “That was a joke”, he later admitted. “It would be too expensive for us. And the future of football in Vatican is at amateur level.” The dream of a Vatican national team playing at international level will remain unfulfilled as well. “It is impossible to join FIFA and UEFA, for most of players in our league are Italians”, Valci explained.
However, a sort of Vatican national team, mainly formed by members of the Papal council and museum guards who wear yellow-and-white shirts, exists. They made their debut in 1985 and played in the last two years against Monaco’s national team and even the Palestine national side.
Current Ireland head coach Giovanni Trapattoni has been offered by the Vatican football association to be the national team manager. Bertone himself labelled as “unfeasible” the idea, although Trapattoni stated he would like to coach the Vatican once he retires from professional football.
Following the Catholic view of the world, is football in heaven more important than football on earth?
Perhaps, late Brian Clough would unravel the enigma using a famous quote: “If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there.”
(Special thanks to Matthew Howarth for the translation of “Der Spiegel” article)