Although promoted by Anglican pastors, popes love sport

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

At the end of the 19th century, Anglican pastors in the UK began to spread a whole new activity throughout Europe: football (currently known as “football” only in the United States). Success is immediate, but the Protestant origin encourages Catholics to be wary.

It was Catholic youth who convinced priests and then bishops of the benefits of this new Anglo-Saxon sport. Saint John Bosco testifies to this with tenderness: “How can weto make children happy, how to bring them together? Throw a ball in the street and the kids 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 cohabiting 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 fields in their diocese of Rome, in particular 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 league, which traveled to the Vatican in 1956 after playing and losing a final against AC Milan. Pius XII’s commentary showed that the era of professionalism had not yet arrived: he praised “sincere enthusiasts of an activity in which [they devote themselves] soul and life, putting in it a youthful ardor, a real effort.

Faith, an asset in the field

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

In football as in daily practice, and in order not to lose the match, it is often necessary to defend your field with courage, confidence and energy, if you do not want to be overwhelmed by the passions which are unleashed; often it is necessary to know how to behave in the difficult middle of the field to find the moment to attack without losing sight of the movements of the adversary and the possible dangers for its own goal; often it is necessary to move forward with intelligence, resolution and agility, in good harmony with the whole line. You must not miss the right time, and you must not let it go to waste.

His successor, John XXIII (1958-1963), was not a sporting pope, and like other sports, he displayed a total disinterest in football. This contrasted with the rest of the Roman Curia, where from that point on we 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 into the field and has faith, has extra equipment. “ Footballers would remember it, sometimes to the point of superstition!

Christ in the colors of Brescia Calcio

In 1965, Paul VI received the players and managers of the football club in Brescia, his hometown. In his speech, with his characteristic intellectual style, he emphasized 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 internal balance and external control, a foundation for the truest and most lasting achievements, for the 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 team’s colors! This work, which shows that the universality of the Church does not exclude the defense of local identity, is still on display 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 home 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 on numerous occasions delegations from national and local teams: Ireland, for example, at the World Cup in Italy in 1990, or rival clubs Lazio and Rome after their respective successes. He organizes many charity matches and inquires 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 “Santo subito!” In the stadium

Very 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 competed on the pitch, the music in the stands was different from usual: chants were played and banners were unfurled to pay homage to the Polish Pope. One of the banners already had the words “Santo Subito” – a succinct phrase that can be roughly translated as “make him a saint immediately” – a slogan that was repeated often in St. Peter’s Square in the days following the ceremony. death of Jean-Paul. It was a sign of the affection the team midfielder had for him.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State to Benedict XVI, is a staunch supporter of Juventus Turin, and 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 all over the world compete on the grass, on a pitch just steps 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. Salesian Cardinal, convinced of the positive role that 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 had a real football fan as Pope. However, rather than the brilliance of business football, he prefers the amateurism and fervor of the public stadiums in Buenos Aires. Member of the San Lorenzo fan club, for which he still pays the monthly subscription, he has not watched a football match on television since 1990, when he sold his place. He admits, for example, that he has never seen the living legend of his country play Lionel Messi, although he has welcomed him to the Vatican on several occasions. However, Pope Francis has entrusted “la Pulga” (as Messi affectionately is) with an important mission, as he did for Samuel Eto’o, James Rodrigues, Gianluigi Buffon, Philippe Lahm and all the great celebrities of world football. , as evidenced by this speech delivered in 2013 during a reception during a friendly match between Italy and Argentina:

You, dear players, are greatly appreciated: people are following you very closely and not only on the pitch but also off. It’s a social responsibility! Let me explain: during the match, when you are on the pitch, 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 professionalize sport, and it should be so. But this professional dimension should never rule out the initial vocation of an athlete or a team: to be amateurs. When an athlete, even a professional, cultivates this “amateur” dimension, society benefits and this person strengthens the common good with values ​​of generosity, camaraderie and beauty.


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The attraction of the balloon

François, who never ceases to remind footballers of the immense influence they have on young people, at the same time often renews his praise of Pius XII’s love for sport; Pius XII remembered with tenderness and joy having gone to El Gasómetro Buenos Aires stadium in 1946. Like John Paul II, François also rediscovered the important fun dimension of sponsorship, and even went so far as to send a video message to “football fans” on the occasion of the Cup. world 2014 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 “Bambino Gesú” pediatric hospital in the Vatican, 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 used to play it, but we didn’t always have a ball at our disposal, 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 rag ball, you can work wonders.


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