In Argentina, where soccer is a national religion, Pope Francis isn’t even the most popular man in his home country.
Argentines still revere Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title. Today, they fervently follow Lionel Messi, an FC Barcelona force who set the all-time record for goals scored in a calendar year in 2012 with 91 total.
However, since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elevated as the Roman Catholic Church’s 266th pope and officially installed Tuesday, March 19 as Pope Francis, many devoted Argentine soccer fans and Catholics have started referring to Maradona, Messi and the new pope as the Holy Trinity—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
It was only fitting in Argentina for national soccer god, Diego Maradona, to weigh in on his fellow countryman, Pope Francis. In a statement repeated in every news outlet in the country, he said: “The god of soccer is Argentine and now the pope is too.”
Many others, including Maradona, see the “hand of God” at work once again. The reference was used in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals, when Maradona eliminated England with two goals, one a brilliant 66-yard, solo run through the defense and the other a handball that the referee mistook for a header.
“This is the true hand of God,” Maradona, who says he is a devout Catholic, wrote on his Twitter account. “I am very happy with the appointment of Francis.”
Pope Francis, who now is the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, counts himself as a soccer fanatic, too. He follows Argentina’s national team, reports his favorite player is Messi and supports local soccer team San Lorenzo de Almagro.
Truthfully, San Lorenzo has holy beginnings. The club was founded in 1908 by the parish priest named Father Lorenzo Massa. Aptly nicknamed Los Santos, or “the Saints,” the story goes that Father Massa offered a group of boys the church’s backyard to play soccer, under the condition that they attend Mass on Sundays.
The team’s colors, blue and red, are said to correspond to the colors of the Virgin Mary’s robe. The team also goes by the nickname the Crows, after the black colors of the robes worn by Massa.
The new pope grew up in Flores, a working-class neighborhood near the team’s stadium. His father was a soccer fan and also played basketball at the club. Five years ago, a stadium chapel was opened and in May 2011, the then cardinal celebrated Mass at the chapel, and was presented with a jersey.
As a cardinal, he also supported the club’s efforts to reclaim the space of its old stadium. In March 2012, about 100,000 San Lorenzo fans gathered in the city’s Plaza de Mayo to ask for its restoration on the site. The cardinal spoke over the radio as a fan, and sent his blessings. The deal to turn over the old space was made official in November and the new stadium is set to kick off in 2016.
But Pope Francis is hardly the only papal chief who loves soccer. His immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, passionately embraces German powerhouse Bayern Munich. Also, Pope John Paul II played the game during his youth in Poland.
One of Argentina’s “big five” clubs, San Lorenzo last won the league title in 2007. It has won 10 professional championships in Argentina’s top division, but remains the only big five club that has never won the Copa Libertadores—South America’s most important club championship. And in recent years, the team has come perilously close to being demoted to a lower-level league for its poor play. The team now ranks 12th out of 20 teams in the country’s first division.
With the support of His Holiness, though, San Lorenzo fans and players are looking up these days. Faith, after all, can be a powerful force.
Duwayne Escobedo is the United States Sports Academy’s director of communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit the San Lorenzo club website, by clicking here.