Pope Francis is a football fan

The pope supports Argentina's San Lorenzo Club (nickname: Los Santos). What better way to dissect his ascension to the papacy than by way of football?

Pope Francis with a football scarf gifted to him during one of public appearances.

For the first time in the Catholic Church’s 1,300 year history the Catholic church has a Jesuit as its head. Officially known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits are the most intellectual order of priests. You could argue that the church, finally, has caught on with football that for a few decades has accepted geeks, nerds and intellectuals, people at ease with ideas and numbers.

In the book Soccernomics, journalist Simon Kuper and academic Stefan Szymanski write about the revolution that was pushed through by computers and number crunchers. It’s not a coincidence that one of the first modern managers to adopt this was the professorial Arsene Wenger, holder of a Masters degree in Economics and a “keen mathematician”.

Long before management consultancies like OptaPro and Prozone had become fashionable, Wenger was using a computer program called Top Score which “gave marks for every act performed during a game”. Now OptaPro collects match data for most leagues in the world. They know how many kilometers each player ran in each match, the tackles he did, and the passes he completed, with which foot. In fact, as Sean Ingle of the Guardian wrote, no club will sign a player without using these statistics.


The false number 9

I want to think of Pope Francis as something of a “false nine.” Ok, I might be stretching it, but hear me out. The Guardian defined this liminal position as “a player who appears to be playing centre-forward, but drops deep…”

Even though Pope Francis was celebrated as the first non-European pope, he is actually an Italian. You might call him a “false Italian,” a “false Argentine” even. Bergoglio’s father was an Italian immigrant who settled in Argentina, a technicality that players like Juan Sebastian Veron and others have exploited before. (There are exceptions: Sampdoria starlet Mauro Icardi, even though he is eligible to play for Italy, says he wants to play for Argentina.)

Inside left or inside right winger

One of this season’s premier league sensations is Tottenham Hotspurs’ Gareth Bale. Even though he is left-legged, he likes to play on the right and then drift inwards. In fact, some of the most exciting footballers playing at the moment base themselves on the ‘wrong’ side of the field and then drift towards the center. Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo is right-footed but prefers playing on the left. Likewise, Lionel Messi of Barcelona is left-footed but likes snaking his way from the left to the right.

Guardian football correspondent Jonathan Wilson has written about how Arsenal’s coach Herbert Chapman didn’t like the touchline hugging winger. Chapman preferred the winger who drifted inwards, arguing that  inside passing was “more deadly, if less spectacular [than the] senseless policy of running along the lines and centering just in front of the goalmouth, where the odds are nine to one on the defenders.”

What to make of allegations that Pope Francis was complicit in Argentina’s dirty war of 1976 to 1983? A book by journalist Horacio Verbitsky alleges that Bergoglio, as head of the Jesuit order in Argentina, withdrew the protection enjoyed by two leftwing Jesuit priests Orland Yorio and Francisco Jalics, exposing them to the wolves. The two were subsequently abducted by the junta and jailed.

Yet this is the same man who turned down a chauffer driven car because he prefers going around in a bus. Or the official palatial residence he was entitled to, instead preferring a simple flat. About a decade ago when he was ordained as cardinal, he told the Argentine faithful not to fly to Italy to see him ordained but instead give the airfare to the poor.

So is Pope Francis a right-leaning clergyman who drifts inwards or is he a left footer who drifts towards the political right?


When white smoke emerged from the chimney at the Vatican it was a signal to say the cardinals had reached a decision. Earlier in the day, black smoke had risen up into the sky signifying a split decision. Funny, extremist football fans, unaffectionately known as ultras who are massed in the stands ignite flares to scare the opposition, create a sulphorous atmosphere in the stadium and, some say, a mark of their identity.


Call me by my real name

I have always found the system of Popes naming themselves after previous popes intriguing. The Pope who resigned is Pope Benedict XVI; the one before him was Pope John Paul II. When the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla was chosen to be pope, he opted to be called John Paul II in honor of John Paul I who was in office for 33 days.

It’s something that’s common in football. Is he Brazilian? Does he score a lot of goals? Is he black? Then he is the new Pele.

Is he a giant? Is he a holding midfielder? Is he Franco-African? Oh, so he must be the new Patrick Vieira. The Vieira moniker is one that has been bequeathed on players such as Abou Diaby, Blaise Matuidi, Alex Nyarko, Leroy Fer. Not surprisingly, the new Vieiras turn out be anything but the Arsenal legend. There is a case though for these players to simply discard their names and become Patrick Vieira XVI or whatever.

Is he Argentine? Is he a genius on the pitch? Is he tempestuous? Does he have a ‘cultured left foot’ or its less fetishized counterpart? Is he stocky ? Then he is the new Maradona. This is a title that has been bequeathed to players like Pablo Aimar, Ariel Ortega, Sergio Aguero (the fact that Aguero is married to Maradona’s daughter made the comparisons even easier), Juan Roman Riquelme and Lionel Messi. The Barcelona forward was thought to be Maradona XI before we realized that he is actually Messi I.

Even though he is the first Pope Francis, his doubles could be St Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of animals) or Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus.

Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.