ROME – A Vatican spokesman today tried to insist that Pope Francis, an Argentine, and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, a German, will stay non-aligned this Sunday when their two nations slug it out in the World Cup final.
“Popes are above such things,” Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi sniffed. “They can only hope for the best team to win.”
To which anyone who knows the two popes in question can only respond: Yeah, right.
When it comes to soccer, even for popes it’s hard to remain impartial. In 2012, Benedict XVI welcomed German star Miroslav Klose to the Vatican, who is now the top scorer in World Cup history. Benedict acknowledged being a fan of Bayern Munich, Klose’s club team. (As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope served as Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1981, a span that saw Bayern claim two Bundesliga championships.)
It’s certainly no secret that Francis is a fan of San Lorenzo de Almagro, a squad that plays in Argentina’s top-flight national league.
In his Buenos Aires office, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio used to have a piece of wood taken from the benches of the team’s first stadium as a memento of many Sunday afternoons spent in the bleachers. In December 2013 the team traveled to the Vatican to thank the pope for his prayers, since during the first 9 months of Francis’ pontificate San Lorenzo went from barely staying afloat to winning the national championship.
Roxana Alfieri, who worked with Francis in Argentina, told the Globe that “he will surely watch the match; I have no doubt about it. He used to listen to San Lorenzo on the radio and enjoyed following all the big events on TV.”
Lombardi didn’t rule it out. The match starts at 9:00 p.m. in Rome, and according to the spokesman the pope is usually in bed by 10, “but he might stay up to watch the game.” Lombardi also said that Francis didn’t see the semifinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands, but “he asked for the result early this morning.”
Regarding the possibility of the two popes watching the last game together, the spokesman considered it “unlikely,” among other reasons because “Benedict didn’t watch Germany play” while he was still the reigning pope.
Of course, now that he’s got more time on his hands, things may be different.
Granted, Benedict XVI didn’t express his love for soccer as openly as Francis does. Yet more than once, the German pontiff referred to the game as a “school of life.” In 2008, he expressed hope that “the game of soccer may always be a means of teaching the values of honesty, solidarity and fraternity, especially among the younger generations.”
As for Francis, Peter Saunders, one of the victims of clerical abuse who met the pontiff on July 7, told the Globe that he told Francis he was cheering for Argentina.
“He didn’t give me an answer,” Saunders said, “but he laughed… he absolutely wants for Argentina to win. You could see it in his eyes, he’s a closet fan.”
Fr. Guillermo Karcher, an Argentinian priest who manages Vatican protocol and is close to Francis, said the Germany-Argentina showdown is “already throbbing” in Rome.
Laughing, Karcher betrayed a bit of national pride by saying, “Both [popes] will pray, but one is the pope, and the other is the pope emeritus.”
During a visit to the Vatican on Feb. 21, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff asked Francis to remain neutral during the World Cup, since the rivalry between both countries is well known. On a video still available on YouTube, the pope vowed to do so.
Now that Brazil is out of the fight, however, all bets for papal restraint are off.