Vatican soccer tournament is a competition of Biblical proportions

The Clericus Cup has grown from informal roots to a two-month, 16-team tournament; even FIFA has taken note

The Clericus Cup rule book is the Bible of soccer at the Vatican. And just like that other Good Book, it contains certain commandments.

The first commandment is thou shalt not foul an opponent who has a free path to the goal. Disobey and the punishment is not a red or yellow card but a blue one that leads to soccer's version of purgatory: a five-minute trip to the sidelines for spiritual reflection.

"I have only heard about the blue card," said Lewi Barakat, an Australian seminary student who has not sinned in three previous Vatican soccer tournaments. "I never saw it used."


Soccer at the Vatican: In the Feb. 8 Sports section, a photo caption with an article about an annual soccer tournament at the Vatican said that a banner reading "Viva el Papa" meant "Up with the pope." It translates as "Long live the pope."

But Barakat, like the more than 350 priests, deaconsand seminarians from the Vatican who play in the annual event, has faith the blue card exists. And at the Vatican, faith — and soccer — are both considered essential. Just ask the guy in charge.

"It's beautiful when a parish has a sports club. Something is missing without one," said Pope Francis, a dues-paying member of the supporters group for Argentine soccer team San Lorenzo — which, not insignificantly, was named after a saint.

The pope doesn't have a favorite among the 16 teams that will kick off in March for the two-month-long event in the ninth edition of the Clericus Cup, the soccer tournament that takes its name from the Latin word for clergy. But that doesn't mean he won't be watching. Because in less than a decade the annual intercollegiate competition among Rome's Pontifical seminaries has grown from a series of intramural scrimmages into a regulation 11-on-11 tournament that has drawn attention from FIFA, the sport's world governing body, and praise from UEFA, European soccer's ruling organization.

"It's bigger than I ever thought it would be," said Scott Gratton, a former teammate of Barakat's on the North American Martyrs, the U.S. seminary team that has won two of the last three Clericus Cup titles. "It literally is like the World Cup to us."

And while the competition remains limited to priests or those studying for the priesthood, it draws players — including some former pros — from more than 60 countries, most of them African or South American.

"It's no walk in the park," said Barakat, 30, who was a top-flight amateur player in Sydney. "The Clericus Cup deserves to be taken with some seriousness and played competitively."

It's not the highest level of soccer played in the Vatican, though. Vatican City, the world's smallest country, also has an international team composed primarily of the Swiss Guard and other staffers, making the Vatican one of only nine recognized sovereign states whose national team is not a FIFA member. Another is tiny Monaco, which beat Vatican City, 2-0, in its most recent game last May.

But whatever the Clericus Cup lacks in talent it more than makes up for in passion. Teams in the tournament have their own supporter groups, composed mainly of other seminarians, who have unique chants for both their teams and individual players. Holy Martyrs — whose uniforms are a patriotic blend of red, white and blue — may have the most impassioned fans, who have shown up costumed as Super Mario, Spiderman, Uncle Sam and Captain America while waving American flags.

Some have even come dressed as priests.

"The atmosphere the fans produce is impressive," Barakat said. "They make noise from start to finish."

Sometimes too much noise. In the tournament's early years, supporters brought drums, tambourines, megaphones and boom boxes that played reggae music at ear-splitting levels. Neighbors complained and while the Vatican didn't institute a vow of silence, it did ask the seminarians to turn down the volume.

The seeds for the tournament were planted in 2003 by Jim Mulligan, a seminarian at England's College in Rome who organized an eight-team "friendly" event called the Rome Cup. But the idea didn't win the Vatican's blessing until four years later. That's when the church's No. 2 official, Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, a fan of Italian club Juventus and a soccer commentator during his time as Archbishop of Genoa, doubled the number of teams and modeled the tournament after the World Cup, adding group play and a knockout round.

The tournament is played on a hilltop within Vatican City at Columbus Pius XI Field, an artificial-turf venue with a tiny grandstand and a breathtaking image of St. Peter's Basilica, which fills the view between the two team benches.

The RedMats of Redemptoris Mater are the most successful team in the tournament, having won three of the first four titles, all by 1-0 scores. Last year they lost by that same score to the African Lions of Collegio Urbano, whose players — with the exception of one Indian and one Indonesian — all came from Africa.

There are few breaks in the school calendar for seminary students in Rome, so Clericus Cup games, as well as the twice-weekly practices that began last month, must be squeezed in around class and church commitments. But for Greg Gerhart, a seminarian and former all-state high school player from Austin, Texas, the two activities complement one another.

"There are several connections between the demands of priesthood — or Christianity in general — and soccer," Gerhart, 27, who also plays for the North American Martyrs, wrote in an email. "For that reason I have thought about putting on summer camps at the parish to show how the fun and discipline that soccer brings about are consistent with the Christian life."

The players bless themselves before taking the field, where both teams meet at the center circle for a pregame prayer. There are no requests for favorable results, though, because the tournament is more about camaraderie and personal growth than it is about winning.

"One of the satisfying aspects of playing for our seminary is seeing how the players come together as a team and how that bond strengthens throughout the tournament," Barakat said.

"More than any other competition I have played in, the players look for the balance of playing hard but fair. There is something greater that the players are striving for that goes beyond the Clericus Cup."

Sometimes the physical and the spiritual worlds collide, which is why the North American Martyrs will once again be without Gratton. The high-scoring forward sustained a knee injury and hasn't played since helping his team to its second straight title in 2013 — making the Clericus Cup one of the few international soccer events that has been dominated by North Americans.

"He wants to be able to genuflect when he is a priest one day," Barakat said of Gratton. "So he decided to retire early for a greater good."

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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