Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Can priests save Italian football's soul?

Like most of the nation, I shed a few tears and consigned myself to a summer of misery when England failed to qualify for Euro 2008. Then, I read about an alternative football tournament happening not in Austria or Switzerland, but in the world's smallest country - Vatican City.

Clericus Cup
This year, 72 nations were represented among the 18 teams taking part
As the son of a lapsed Catholic and a bit of a lapsed playground footballer myself, I was intrigued.

The Clericus Cup is like no other football tournament. The players are all trainee priests, drawn from Rome's seminary colleges.

Seventy two nations are represented among the 18 teams taking part, including Ukraine, Iraq, Malta, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, Brazil and England.

The teams pray together before games and there is a strict code of sportsmanship - where fair play is more important than winning.

As one of the British players told me: "It's about competing, but competing in the right manner."

The tournament is the brainchild of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone - the Vatican's secretary of state, effectively the Pope's number two. The 73-year-old Bertone is a lifelong Juventus fan. During his time as Archbishop of Genoa, he used to commentate on matches on local radio.

International dreams

At a press conference in late 2006, Bertone announced to the world's media that he dreamed of a time when the Vatican had their own football team.

Kickoff for the 2007 Clericus Cup
Kickoff for the 2007 tournament in the shadow of St Peter's Dome
"If we just take the Brazilian students from our Pontifical universities we could have a magnificent squad," he said.

"The Vatican could, in future, field a team that plays at the top level, with Roma, Inter Milan, Genoa and Sampdoria."

In theory, the Vatican could one day field its own team on the international stage. In the meantime though, Bertone has contented himself with organising the Clericus Cup.

The competition's slogan is "un altro calcio e possible" - a different football is possible.

The values of the tournament stand as a stark contrast to Italian professional football, which has been plagued by corruption and violence in recent years.

In May 2006, some of Italy's biggest clubs, including Juventus, AC Milan and Lazio, became embroiled in a match-fixing scandal that saw Juventus relegated as punishment to Serie B, the second tier of Italian football.

Then in February 2007, a policeman was murdered in violence between football fans and police. Nine months later a Lazio fan was shot accidentally by a policeman, sparking furious protests by fans against the police.

All these events were continuations of old themes in Italian football - excellence on the pitch but corruption, greed, violence and hate off it.

Code of conduct

The Church has now taken on the role of cleaning up football - going as far as getting involved in the running of a team.

Danny Robins with members of the British team
Danny Robins with members of the philosophical British team
The Centro Sportivo Italiano, a Vatican-backed Catholic sports association, became involved with AC Ancona, a once successful team which had fallen on hard times.

The CSI brought in a new code of conduct for the team, which included players having to do community service as punishment for any red or yellow cards. On the plus side, they did get to meet the Pope.

The relationship between the Church and football is well established in Italy. The two are intertwined in the lives of children from an early age - most Italian kids play their first calcio at a church run youth club.

I asked a range of people I met which was more important to Italians, God or football. Their answers were split roughly down the middle.

Journalist and broadcaster Paddy Agnew, an expert on Italian football summed it up well:

"Ninety-six percent of Italians are nominal Catholics, but the same 96% are committed football fans."

It is tempting to view the Clericus Cup as a cynical attempt by the "old religion" to get some free advertising on the back of the "new religion', but the truth of the matter is that in Italy, everyone loves football, priests included.


I arrived in Rome in April in time for the semi-finals of the Clericus Cup. On first glimpse, the astroturf pitch at the edge of town seemed a little underwhelming, but then, as I walked round the side of the pitch, I was struck by the most amazing vista - the pitch overlooks St Peter's Dome.

It is the most immediate and compelling reminder of what this tournament is all about.

The players range in age from those almost straight from school to the tournament's oldest player, 57 year old John Breen, Dean of Studies at Beda College.

The whole idea, not to get too heavy, is the idea of sport bringing the finer qualities out of humanity, like humility in victory and gracious in defeat
Tony Preston, British team captain
There are also slightly different rules regarding discipline. You might be forgiven for thinking that yellow and red cards would be unnecessary in a tournament of trainee priests, but there were four red cards in this year's tournament - two for verbal abuse and one for a priest from Burkina Faso who threw his shirt at a referee.

"You get a bit of back chat, couple of tantrums and people storming off, but that's to be expected in the heat of the moment," said Francis, one of the British players.

There is the further innovation of a blue card, which, when shown to a player, sends him off to a 'sin bin' for five minutes to contemplate what he has done, and perhaps ask for absolution.

The teams pray before the match, but as tournament organiser Felice Alborghetti told me:

"All teams pray to the same God so he can have no favourites."

The fans are, to say the least, vocal. The American team from the Pontifical North American College, or PNAC, had one of the largest supports.

Nicknamed the Knackers, they were led by a priest in a cowboy hat. Their fans favourite chant is a rousing "Come on you Knackers, kick some Caboose."

The Americans seemed pretty confident, as one of their midfielders said:

"When you love God you can't lose." They lost 4-0.

The British team had already been eliminated by semi-final stage. In a horrible echo of Euro 2008 qualifying, they lost to a team of Croatian priests. Tony Preston, the team's captain seemed pretty philosophical:

"The whole idea, not to get too heavy, is the idea of sport bringing the finer qualities out of humanity, like humility in victory and gracious in defeat - we've got a bit of experience in that."

It's hard not to admire a tournament that sets out in a spirit of fair play. Perhaps the professional game could learn a thing or two from these priests.

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