ROME — Vatican-sponsored soccer league matches went ahead as scheduled this weekend on a hill overlooking St. Peter's Basilica. For the 16 teams of seminaries, missionaries and oratories, however, the pre- and postgame talk veered from purely sports and spiritual topics to the coming conclave to elect a new pope.
The conclave directly affected the tournament, with the coach of a Brazilian team absent because he was chosen to drive two cardinals to Assisi on Sunday – one of the final days of respite before the cardinals enter the conclave Tuesday.
"It didn't go so well today," Aldemir Francisco Belaver, the captain of the Collegio Pio Brasiliano seminary said after a 4-1 loss to Redemptoris Mater, a team featuring seminarians and priests with the Mater Neocatechumenal movement. "It wasn't easy without our coach."
Redemptoris fans – which consisted exclusively of priests and seminarians clad in black – had no pity, though. They banged on drums and chanted "Re-demp-toris Mat-ER" to the beat of "We Will Rock You."
According to the Brazilian tradition of only using first names for soccer players, the Brazilian captain goes by simply "Belaver" when he plays. And in keeping with the soccer rivalry between Brazil and Argentina, he had only one request for the papal election.
"No Argentines!" he said.
Geraldo Maia, a Brazilian priest with Collegio Pio watching from the stands, was more democratic.
"We're hoping for a Brazilian winner, or at the very least someone from North or South America," he said. "Forza Brazil in football and in the papacy!"
The matches are held at St. Peter's Pontifical Oratory on a field named for former American Cardinal Francis Spellman.
The season runs from February to May and the winner takes home the "Saturno" trophy, consisting of an old-fashioned priest's hat with a wide, circular brim – like the planet Saturn's rings – on top of a soccer ball and a pair of black spikes.
Retired Pope Benedict XVI was once presented a copy of the Saturno trophy, as was Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the camerlengo, or chamberlain, presiding over the Holy See during these days with no pope.
Bertone, a big football fan and supporter of the Clericus Cup when it began seven years ago, is said to keep the trophy in his office. While not officially labeled the Vatican league, the Clericus Cup is supported by the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Council for Culture.
"It may not be official but it's known as the Vatican World Cup," league communications chief Felice Alborghetti said.
Only three different teams have been crowned champion in the first seven editions, with last season's honors going to the North American Martyrs.
"This year all 16 teams are papabile because the league is very balanced," Alborghetti said, using the Italian word for papal candidates.
The matches last one hour and rules differ slightly from those of professional club soccer. Teams are allowed one time out and, besides the traditional yellow and red card, the referee brandishes a blue card, which gives errant players a 5-minute suspension.
But referee Zazza Fiorenzo, a layman, has rarely seen unsportsmanlike play.
"Here we're all protected," Fiorenzo said, with a nod in direction of the Vatican grounds.
Last weekend's matches were canceled out of respect for Benedict's resignation, but league officials insist games will go ahead next weekend even if a pope is elected in the coming days.
In the meantime, each team is looking for that extra bit of tactics that might lead to a miraculous title.
Collegio Spagnolo, a new team of Spanish seminarians, recently received a video message from Vicente del Bosque, coach of the Spanish national team – the reigning World Cup and European champions.
Anthony Naah, a deacon from Ghana and the 28-year-old captain for the Sedes Sapientiae seminary team based in the Roman neighborhood of Trastevere, was hoping for a spiritual boost if cardinal and countryman Peter Turkson, viewed by many as the top African contender for pope, is elected.
"It's not impossible," Naah said. "There's a lot of talk about him. We saw him two weeks ago when we celebrated mass together. It would really be something great for our faith."