Like the rest of the world, the Vatican loves soccer. And when you love a sport, you want to start a tournament or at least a pickup game. And so the Vatican founded a tournament featuring priests, seminarians, and players from the Vatican team (including the Swiss Guard!). If the success of the Clericus Cup’s first decade is any indication, the tournament will continue to grow:
The Cup is not the Vatican's first foray into sports. Cardinals have been known to commentate for Italian soccer matches. Soccer teams regularly give the pope their jerseys. Pope John Paul II, who once played goalkeeper as a kid, created a Vatican department for sports. In 2007, the Vatican even bought an 80% stake in Italian soccer club AC Ancona. The interfaith equivalent of the Clericus Cup is the Vatican's cricket team (appropriately nicknamed St. Peter's Cricket Club), which travels for competitions against other faiths in Fatima and receives the Royal Household of Windsor in Rome. The “beautiful game” appears to be a universal language among Catholic priests. And soccer, particularly Clericus Cup soccer, definitely has a papal blessing:
As a tournament that priests and seminarians refer to as their World Cup, the Clericus Cup remains firmly rooted in the Vatican City and Rome. The hundreds of seminarians who participate each year come from dozens of countries, but there are no 'away' games—all the seminarians have a home in Rome. And it's not just any home, but one with student-priests-gone-wild, chanting songs and wearing flags and country-specific costumes (Captain America, the Super Mario Brothers, et al.). There are even Star Wars-themed homage videos in which aspiring goalkeeper priests get kidnapped by the LA Galaxy, much to the chagrin of their Clericus Cup teams. (Thankfully, the LA Galaxy has never actually attempted to poach any player while he was competing for the Cup's trophy of a hat-wearing soccer ball with cleats.)
The tradition of having soccer matches among the pontifical colleges in Rome is much older than the Clericus Cup, of course. Fr. Jim Mulligan started an eight-team tournament called the Rome Cup in 2003, when he was a seminarian at Pontifical Beda College. Among other teams, the North American Martyrs (unsurprisingly) have a history of trials and tribulations. None of that history, however, has impacted their successive Clericus Cup wins. Even the Martyrs have risen to soccer glory, dominating the 2012 and 2013 years.
Though not every player in the Cup is a priest, the hope is that the seminarians and priests on the teams will direct the play toward more lofty spiritual goals, and to help the personal growth of the friars in cleats. Previously, it was also partly to help restore decency to the game after the Calciopoli scandals and to convince world soccer organizations such as FIFA to adopt the so-called “sin cards.” For the Clericus Cup, these blue cards put a player in the “sin bin” for five minutes.
The format of the tournament is simple: sixteen teams play against each other in group play and then a knockout round. Since 2007, hundreds of players from dozens of countries have kicked their way across the soccer stadiums in the shadow of St. Peter's Basilica. Teams take the field with eleven players each. Strategies vary, but defending champions Mater Ecclesiae currently favor a 3-4-3 formation. The tournament coincides with the Lenten season, meaning that teams play through their Lenten observance. Teams have been known to schedule one of their two weekly practices on Fridays, when Catholics abstain from meat and partially fast in remembrance of Good Friday. This isn't as sacrilegious as it sounds—a recent conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University noted that players at the Clericus Cup practice a kind of discipline of the body that should promote spiritual growth:
The priests-in-training take this concept very seriously, often noting in interviews that the only reason for wins is simply for the tournament to keep going to the next round. They also insist that the main goal of the Cup is the opportunity to bond with all of their fellow priests and student priests, though they have been known to mention their position and their skill at playing it. The true tournament, they’ve assured me, comes after the Clericus Cup—the one called life.
And as priests are the kind to get a little matchy-matchy for major holidays, clothing matters. Players’ jerseys mark the Catholic Church’s theme for the year. Last year was an extraordinary year of mercy, so the jerseys proclaimed in Latin that there was mercy on the field. But the players themselves have been known to sneak Bible verses into their cleats for a little extra help.
Soon, there will be more opportunities for women to play in Vatican soccer tournaments. There are Catholic sisters who live and study at the Vatican, and, if you’ve stayed with them as I have, you know they have the stamina required for a knockout soccer tournament. Catholic sisters playing soccer were even an attraction in the days of black and white film:
Nuns studying at the Vatican haven’t started their own Rome Cup, so the issue has never come up. But the Vatican believes that sport is a human right. The clerics in charge of the Vatican’s Council for Culture have announced their support for women’s teams in several different countries on numerous occasions. Eventually, there will be enough global grassroots soccer support for all women who study at the Vatican to have had the chance to play.
For now, there is a Vatican soccer tournament in which seminarians can play whether they are in their 20s or 50s. All come away with a sense of fraternity and possibly even world peace. They’re soccer players who just happen to also be training to be priests, all playing under the world’s biggest soccer fan: Pope Francis.
This year’s Clericus Cup is just concluding group play. Current standings are posted on its website.