With the 2018 Soccer World Cup being only a week away, it’s fitting that the Vatican released a new document on sports. In “Dare il meglio di sé” (‘Giving the Best of Yourself”), there is an emphasis on sports meeting humanity from a Christian perspective.
While this may the Vatican’s first document on sport released, it’s not the first time Catholicism and soccer have been linked. Here are six surprising facts you may not know about the two:
1. The Vatican and football have been linked since the 16th century
The first reported match played in the Vatican occurred on January 7, 1521. Pope Leo X was a spectator!
However, this match wasn’t a soccer match like the ones you see in modern times. The Vatican’s link to the soccer we now know and love can be traced to 1973 when the Vatican established its own league.
2. The Vatican has its own national team
While the Vatican City National Football Team has never played in a World Cup match, the team still exists. Its squad is comprised of Vatican employees (like members of the Swiss guards, police officers, and postal workers).
The Vatican City National Football Team played their first match in 2002. To date, they have only played four full international matches against other teams. The teams they’ve played against have included Monaco, San Marino, Palestine, and league teams Borussia Monchengladbach (Germany) and SV Vollmond (Switzerland).
Despite being an official team, they are not members of FIFA (the International Federation of Association Football) whom the Vatican has criticized for their attempt to ban religious expressions from their competitions.
3. The popes are soccer fans
Saint Pope John Paul II was a goalkeeper in his youth. He was a fan of the Polish national team as well as Liverpool F.C. (England) and KC Cracovia (Poland).
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is said to be a fan of Bayern Munich (Germany) and even wrote about the importance of the sport when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. Today, Pope Francis is a big fan of Argentinian league team San Lorenzo
4. The Clericus Cup
Did you know that there is an annual soccer tournament for seminarians studying at the Vatican? The annual Clericus Cup has been played by seminarians representing their respective colleges since 2007. Sixteen schools and 65 countries have been represented since its inception.
This year it was won by the Pontifical North American College seminarians; their third win in Cup history and the first since 2013.
5. The Spanish soccer connection
When Spain won the World Cup in 2010, several players and staff members dedicated the trophy to Our Lady and a number of saints. Andres Iniesta made a promise to walk the Way of St. James following their victory. David Silva thanked Our Lady of Mount Carmel. When the team went to Mexico for a friendly match, they took the trophy and dedicated it to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
6. Get to know these famous Catholic footballers
Ivorian footballer, Didier Drogba, gave credit to God for Chelsea’s 2012 UEFA Champions League win. English footballer, Wayne Rooney, is said to wear a Rosary during practice. Dutch footballer, Wesley Sneijder, famously became a Catholic convert prior to the 2010 World Cup.
The two most famous footballers on the planet, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, are reportedly Catholic. However, there are three World Cup players who have been very vocal about their faith. They are Javier “El Chicharito” Hernandez (Mexico), Jakub Błaszczykowski (Poland), and Robert Lewandowski (Poland).
No matter who you root for in this year’s World Cup, remember that the “beautiful game” can do a lot of good in this world. As Pope Francis recently stated, “Sports can open the way to Christ in those places or environments where, for different reasons, it is not possible to announce Him directly; and people, with their witness of joy, practicing a sport as a community, can be messengers of the Good News.”