ROME – Although most of the soccer world’s eyes were probably on the Manchester City-Real Madrid Champions League semifinal on Tuesday night, another match the same day was closer to the heart of Pope Francis.
A Vatican soccer team played a team from Italy’s small islands in Rome.
The Vatican team, Fratelli Tutti – named for the pope’s 2020 encyclical on human fraternity – includes several priests, two Swiss Guards, four refugees from Congo and Afghanistan, three Ukrainians, and a young man with Down syndrome.
The match took place at the initiative of the Isole d’Elba team, named for the largest of the 87 small inhabited islands surrounding the Italian mainland. The organization wanted to highlight the problems arising from the phenomenon of depopulation of the Italian islands, which today count some 240,000 inhabitants.
The amateur soccer team reached out to Pope Francis, asking him for the possibility of a personal meeting to encourage investment in these islands, which many young people leave for greater economic opportunities in Italy’s large cities. The demographic crisis could lead to the islands losing essential services such as health and schooling.
The pope’s team included several members of Atletica Vaticana, the Holy See’s athletics team.
There are over 100 people who are part of the team, which was created three years ago by Vatican workers who discovered a shared love of running.
Membership is free, but being a citizen, an employee or a child of an employee of the Vatican is a requirement, with a handful of migrants also allowed to join.
Layman Giampaolo Mattei – who has worked at the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano for the past 35 years – told Crux the team is very much “in Pope Francis style: Humble and promoting a spirit of fraternity.”
“One of the many beautiful things of this experience is the camaraderie and family-like environment that was greater among the players, even having had only a handful of team trainings,” he said. “Playing together, realities that are diverse yet complex, for a moment, show that we can all play together in the ‘game of life’.”
The National Amateur League, the Pro League and Trastevere Calcio helped organize the match.
“We want to represent through sport, a social vehicle of great impact, the hardships experienced daily by the people who have chosen to live on small islands, but also the joys and that feeling of being in a paradise on earth,” said Gaetano D’Auria, president of the Isole d’Elba team, in a statement released before the match.
“We will bring to our people the warmth that the Holy Father will transmit to us,” he said. “We will tell him about the problems with stormy winters, when high winds prevent connections. But also the experience of feeling … isolated, forgotten by the central authorities. We’ll tell him that the church is always present and close to people, and we’ll ask him above all for a word of encouragement for our young people, so that they don’t abandon the place where they were born. And perhaps a soccer match played in friendship, without looking at the result, can be… miraculous.”
Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said in a statement that in the Bible, “islands represent distant and forgotten worlds, the boundaries of the world.”
The council sponsors both the Fratelli Tutti soccer team and the Atletica Vaticana athletics team.
“But they are the object of special attention from God, who does not fail to send his messengers to them to bring the good news. With this soccer match we want to witness the closeness of the pope and the church to all islands, near and far, small and large,” the priest said.
In the end, the match was a high scoring affair, with the islanders beating the Vatican team 4-2.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma