When faith calls the shots

The Beautiful Game has had a close association with religion and the new pope exemplifies that link
Last Updated 23 March 2013, 16:20 IST

When the Buenos Aires team San Lorenzo de Almagro played and won a Primera Division match at Colon last week, it knowingly breached a basic statute of FIFA law.

It is forbidden for teams anywhere to display endorsements related to race, religion or politics. Every San Lorenzo shirt for the game in Santa Fe, Argentina, had a picture, framed by the words 'Papa Francisco,' close to the club insignia on the chest.

The gesture was understandable, given that the new pope is a bona fide fan of the team. And no doubt San Lorenzo, which like every Argentine club can use more money, could sell more shirts before anyone else outside the club jumps on the bandwagon and cashes in on the papal connection.

This pontiff has two faiths. He was installed recently as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but for as long as he has been a Catholic, Pope Francis has been a follower of San Lorenzo.

It is a binding and genuine relationship. The club takes its name from Lorenzo Massa, the priest who founded the team by inviting lads to come in off the streets to play their soccer in his churchyard.

That is a well-trodden path in England, where soccer in its current form began more than 130 years ago. The Liverpool club Everton was formed by a local Methodist church, St Domingo’s, in 1878, and Manchester City, these days owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family, has its roots in St Mark’s Church.

Go anywhere in the world, to Africa, Europe or the Americas, and you will find that many a soccer team has one foot in religion. As sports, per se, become ever more fervent, it was common, for example, for Christian players in the National Football League to pray in the end zone after scoring or for Muslim cricketers to give thanks to Allah as they profess their faith – a long way from when the boxer Cassius Clay generated headlines everywhere when he changed his name to Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam.

But still, and for sound reason, the FIFA tenets try to prevent overt demonstrations of political, racial or religious messages.

Imagine, though, what social influence could be wielded if one individual could harness the devotion of the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics with just as many, if not more, soccer followers across the globe – who cut across all cultures, classes and faiths.

It will take a while, but eventually Pope Francis could become the third-most recognised Argentine face in the world – after the soccer greats Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.

Messi’s time

This is Messi’s time in the sport, and since he scores in every game, every week, it is accepted practice for the world’s most famous soccer player to cross himself and raise his two index fingers to the sky.

Maradona is now living off former glories, but still he was asked, and still he crudely answered, on the selection of an Argentine to the highest role in his church. Maradona said this was the second coming of the ''Hand of God.''

For those too young to know, Maradona referred to his rogue’s goal when he sneakily fisted the ball into the net against England during the 1986 World Cup – an act that became known as the ''Hand of God.''

There is even a Church of Maradona. It has shrines in Argentina and in Naples, where he also played, and the Iglesia Maradoniana holds ritual ceremonies and claims to have 120,000 worshippers to this quasi-god of soccer. That, perhaps, is harmless manifestation of sports idolatry.

But when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was in Buenos Aires, before becoming pope, he was a card-carrying member of San Lorenzo’s fan base.

Many of us often wondered what fan No 88,235 did when his fellow supporters at the stadium of San Lorenzo launched into their chorus of ''La Gloriosa.''

Francis is not the first pope to hold strong emotional ties to soccer. John Paul II played as a goalkeeper in his youth and, during his tenure from 1978 to 2005, he tried to preach peace instead of violence to hooligans who, in those times, were even more virulent around soccer stadiums than they are today.

The new pope has never made a secret of his love for the sport, or of his work among the impoverished of the Buenos Aires barrios, the shanties where, for example, Diego Maradona played his first impromptu games.

Oscar Lucchini, an architect who supports San Lorenzo from the stands, once said that when Francis was a cardinal, ''He told us he lives in a permanent state of suffering for San Lorenzo.''

To this Pope, who is unlikely ever again to get close to the other fans in the stadium, there came a moment of strange circumstances in San Lorenzo’s game last week.
The Primera Division game was deadlocked for 74 minutes. San Lorenzo was down to 10 men after one of its players was red carded for foul play in the first half. But then, following a corner kick, fate intervened.

Ruben Ramirez, a Colon forward, rose to the ball but haplessly headed it into his own goal. That strike, the only goal of the match, might on another day be investigated by FIFA officials looking for dubious own goals.

Probably it was an innocent mistake. But soccer is no longer able to presume innocence. It is a business in which FIFA sits on about $1.3 billion of World Cup profits – and a business in which FIFA’s own tainted hierarchy will convene in Zurich this week. You wonder if the bosses there will send a message of affinity with the soccer fan in the Vatican, or order an investigation into the photographs on the shirts of San Lorenzo de Almagro.

(Published 23 March 2013, 16:20 IST)

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