With the illuminated Dome of St Peter’s in the background, the Stadio Petriana provides the perfect setting for Saturday’s tussle between Vatican City and Monaco. Ahead of the clash, Kate Carlisle visits the Vatican and its team of Swiss Guards and Post Office workers.
This Saturday, in the shadow of St Peter’s, Vatican City face off against Monaco. In this clash between the world’s smallest and second smallest nations, the hosts will be hoping to gain revenge for last year’s 2-0 defeat in the tiny principality outside Nice.
Yes, Vatican City, population 840, area less than half a square kilometre, has a football team. More than that, it has a league, a cup and a super cup. Round the edges is a wonderful tournament known as the Clericus Cup, played between… well, clerics.
Monaco, of course, has always been a big name in the football world, thanks to the club that recently claimed runners-up spot in the French league. Its national team is another matter. Both the Vatican and Monaco play matches outside of the FIFA network of 209 nations who compete every four years for the World Cup. Theirs is a weird orbit of fixtures with teams from obscure regions, remote islands and stateless peoples – the Vatican has played Monaco three times, as well as numerous charitable friendlies and benefit matches.
‘This is exactly how the team was conceived,’ said Giancarlo Taraglio, the most venerable of the five managers in the Vatican game.
‘No-one wants to become professional. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t serious on the pitch. We have no aspirations to play against the big names in the game – unless it’s for a good cause.’
Organised football in the tiny enclave was set up in 1972 by Vatican employee Sergio Valci. A worker in its health-care system, Valci was one of the few Vatican employees who knew almost everyone, no matter from which office. He consolidated an already active network of teams that had sprung out of these various departments.
‘Both the league and national team were set up as a healthy way for employees to continue to interact out of the office, to get to know each other, and to stay active,’ says Danilo Zennaro, whose father coached the Vatican Library XI for 15 years.
Recent Popes, of course, have all loved calcio. John Paul II played in goal for Cracovia, Benedict is still a big Bayern man and current incumbent, Argentine Pope Francis, follows San Lorenzo and recently received the Napoli and Fiorentina teams before the Italian Cup Final.
The gathering to watch Saturday’s Monaco clash will consist of a few friends and colleagues. Admission is free. The game takes place under floodlights at the Stadio Petriana in the Vatican’s sports complex of the Pontificio Oratorio San Pietro just outside the city walls on via Santa Maria Mediatrice. The Vatican will be the team in yellow. Kick-off 8pm.
For every match, Vatican coach Gianfranco Guadagnoli selects a squad of 20 from the eight league teams, Italian citizens working for the Vatican State. A former player and employee of the lucrative Vatican Post Office, Guadognoli follows all teams through the season and consults with their presidents. ‘Just like Italian national coach Prandelli,’ says Zennaro.
Selection depends not only on performance, but also on availability. Those employed as gardeners or guards may have other commitments off the pitch. ‘In some ways, it is good that Monaco’s Prince Albert won’t be coming, as many of our players would have been called for extra duty,’ laughs Zennaro.
‘Sometimes each department has a surfeit of staff and make up one league team, like the Swiss Guards. Other offices have to band together, like Santos or Fortitudo.’
Despite working inside the Holy See, sparks and strong words have been known to fly on the pitch, sanctioned both on the field and back in the workplace. ‘Sometimes tensions inside the office unfold on the field,’ says Zennaro. ‘This is football, after all.’