Faith -- more foreign than futbol

A statuette depicting the Holy Child of Miracles, dressed in the Mexican national soccer team uniform, is displayed at the Saint Gabriel Archangel Catholic Church in Mexico City June 10, 2010. The statuette was dressed in the uniform ahead of the World Cup in Africa which will kick off on June 11.  REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar (MEXICO - Tags: SPORT SOCCER RELIGION SOCIETY WORLD CUP)

It's well-known that football is religion in the United States. But Americans are reminded every four years, in the rest of the world they worship the other football -- aka futbol, footie or, simply, soccer. This short feature from the South African Mail & Guardian, with the apt and simple title "Football and Worship," hammers that point home.

Sunday school is set up like a soccer field. There are two removable goal posts set up in the square, three balls lie on the ground and chairs surround the pitch in a room decorated with pictures of Jesus Christ and his apostles. Norman Mangena, the head of St Mark's Sunday school explains why the church, that was once reluctant to accept football indoors, was 'wooing' football now.

"We are using the soccer platform to send our message to more people because the World Cup is going to be watched by millions of people. This is the opportunity for me to wear a South African National jersey with a message, 'Jesus loves you'. If it comes out on TV, it will reach millions of people," says Mangena.

Indeed, American sports stars aren't the only ones who point to the heavens when they step into the endzone or cross home plate. There is a lot of faith on the field, or in this case the pitch, going on during the 2010 World Cup. Christianity Today has a summary of some of those stories on its Liveblog.

And though there is no The Hand of God Blog, there are plenty of blogs to help you keep up with everything going on in South Africa, whether you're following the cup, um, religiously or are more of a cafeteria patron. My favorite, if only because of its clever name, is NPR's blog Show Me Your Cleats!

The United States plays its second game -- this time against Slovenia -- in a few minutes here. You can be sure I'm watching it the English way before heading to work. But it's just not the same for Americans, who as a friend likes to point out only pretend to like soccer four weeks every four years. This is not our religion.

Neither is it the religion of Roman Catholic priests. They are, after all, Christians. But this New York Times article suggests that football follows closely behind.

The Clericus Cup was founded in 2007 by Msgr. Claudio Paganini, who represents the Italian Bishops Conference at the Centro Sportivo Italiano, the Catholic sports association. Monsignor Paganini did so at the urging of one of the Vatican's most serious soccer fans: Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state and a former archbishop of Genoa, who is a devoted fan of Turin's Juventus.

"At the Vatican, rumor has it that on Mondays, the first thing the pope asks him is how Juventus did the previous weekend," Monsignor Paganini said of Cardinal Bertone.

"We have soccer in our DNA," Monsignor Paganini said of Italy. He added that the tournament was aimed at encouraging a more "ethical model of sportsmanship," as well as friendship, fair play and team spirit.

However, the story doesn't really live up to the hype.

To begin, the headline is a bit misleading. "Shedding the collar to lace up the cleats" implies -- or I at least inferred -- that Roman Catholic priests are prohibited from playing soccer and the priests that would be mentioned in this story could no longer fulfill their vow of soccer celibacy. Obviously, though, this is not the case. What is the case is less clear.

This ends up being an interesting story about a glorified international parish and seminary soccer league. But the article about religious folks is really rather void of religion. The closest we get from a what-religion-means-to-me perspective is this comment from Davide Tisato, a seminarian who has scored the winning goal each of the past two years:

"We are not Martians; we are normal people," said Mr. Tisato, the former semipro soccer player and winning Clericus Cup scorer. "I hope that this competition can show people that the church is lively and young people still feel the call."

In other words, Tisato, at the least, sees the Clericus Cup as a way to do missions, to evangelize to those who may have been turned off by the Catholic Church. That's interesting. Certainly a lot of people have had enough of the Catholic Church. But that really isn't discussed anywhere else in this article.

To be sure, there is much more here that the reporter could have explored other than just the names of the popes who played soccer growing up.

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