Around the World Part 1: Vatican City

Our world is a strange, complex, and above all interesting entity. Full of people and places to discover, the globe has peaked the curiosity of plenty of people throughout human history. With football being the most widely played sport across the world, we want to showcase the history and current state of the sport everywhere. From the far reaches of Pacific islands to the booming economic powerhouses of Europe, this journey is sure to stimulate your mind and encourage further research. Welcome to Around the World: A Deep Dive into Football’s Global Influence.

Vatican City Map
Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, both in terms of size and population. Maps provided by MapChart.net.

As the evening sun begins to set over the pitch, the two teams take the field. As the national anthem begins to emanate from dozens of golden trumpets behind them, the players look forward, ready for action. The camera scrolls across the squad until it reaches the club captain, whose determined facial expression would lead you to believe that he’s about to take part in a World Cup Final. In a certain way, he is. It’s his very own World Cup Final. Except this final is being played on a pitch overshadowed by St. Peter’s Basilica. Moreover, this glory-filled moment of national pride and mental preparation is in the name of Città del Vaticano: Vatican City.

Often, countries like the United States, Algeria, and Qatar are slated for their usage of naturalization of foreign-born footballers to play for their national team. When the US escaped the Ghana fixture in the 2014 World Cup by the forehead of John Brooks, and later when it nearly withstood Belgium via a late goal from Julian Green, it had Germany to thank for the goals (and it was not because Jürgan Klinsmann was the coach at the time). Brooks was born and bred in Berlin, having gained the option to play for the US thanks to his father, who was an American serving overseas. Green was born in Tampa, but his mother took him back to her homeland of Germany when he was only two years old.  Both of these players are technically American. Technically.

With about a 5% female population, there isn’t really too much repopulating going on in Vatican City. Most of its population of about 1,000, which makes it the smallest sovereign state in the world, is made up of Vatican employees: clergy members (cardinals, diplomats, etc.), members of the Swiss Guard, and other lay people. All of these people are granted Vatican citizenship by the Pope himself, which allows them to work freely inside the nation’s boundaries and, for the purposes of sport, compete for the Vatican City National Football Team. Every citizen of the nation is technically a naturalized citizen because even those born in the country must be granted citizenship by the Pope. It’s quite the honor to be appointed citizenship at the epicenter of Christianity, so when you put on the national colors of gold and white, the upcoming matches really mean something to you.

Vatican City Football
The Vatican City National Football Team often plays against smaller nations like Monaco, or even youth teams of clubs like German side St. Pauli. (aslasalle.it)

In the Vatican City Championship, Santos took home the title over reigning champs Musei Vaticani. Oh, I’m sorry. Did you miss the fact that Vatican City has a 9-team league system and a league cup, the Coppa Sergio Valci? Well, the mini-nation does indeed, and it’s quite competitive. According to Pat McGuinness, creator of an awesome football blog rightly named Pat’s Football Blog, “the players train once or twice a week…the league is quite competitive, and several teams are comprised of players who work for particular concerns within the Vatican.” For example, he informed me that Dirtel, one of the Vatican’s teams, “represents the Vatican’s telecommunications company of the same name.” It’s really quite the well-oiled machine inside the Italian enclave.

The history of Vatican City is quite interesting. In the 1800’s, when Italy began expanding by taking over the Papal States (ruled by the Pope), it eventually claimed the city of Rome. Not wanting to give in and refusing to recognize the nation of Italy, the Pope retreated inside the Vatican walls. It wasn’t until 1929, under the power of Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, that the two entities signed a treaty establishing Vatican City as its own state. To this day, the nation of Vatican City remains independent of its surrounding nation.

Vatican City stadium
Vatican City is so small that it’s impossible to play a competitive football game inside its borders. The national team’s stadium is stationed down the street from the city itself.

In addition to the league and cup competitions in the Vatican, there is also an annual competition called the Clericus Cup. While these aren’t players residing in the country, they are mostly from Roman Catholic universities across the world studying to be priests. Brazilian, American, Mexican, and dozens of other nationalities are represented in the competition of 18 squads. While the main driving force behind the competition is to represent the youthfulness of Christianity and its positive virtues, it’s very much a competitive tournament. I guess no matter where you’re from or what your beliefs are, football brings out the competitive child in everyone.

Mr. McGuinness has written extensively on the ongoings of many “minnow” teams across the world and has visited a clash between Vatican City and Monaco about three years ago. “The best way I can put it is that the Vatican City side is just as passionate about football as any other team,” he wrote to me, “but I don’t think that winning is their top priority.” Often times, sport in the Vatican community takes on a more representative role. The virtues of sportsmanship, teamwork, and kindness are what the Vatican is pushing forth with these matches, but that doesn’t cancel out the will to win for this team entirely.

What would a Christian institution be without some form of orderliness and reprimanding? “The Vatican FA takes discipline…very seriously,” Pat told me, “They have introduced a points system where serious transgressions are taken into account and could even lead to expulsion from the league championship or cup competition.” This actually happened with 6th-placed side Gendarmeria: an incident that Pat will expand upon on his blog in the near future.

Understandably, the Vatican “will not be [taking part in] international competitions due to its wish to remain neutral and not play against any opponents who go against the Vatican’s political and religious ethos,” according to Pat. That’s why you’ll really only see the national team go up “against a rather eclectic series of opponents”, as he puts it. This means, unfortunately for minnow-loving fans, that Vatican City won’t be going up against Ronaldo’s Portugal in the World Cup anytime soon.

When that national anthem is being played by the band comprised of more people than the crowd itself, there still is a sense of competitiveness. They want to achieve victory over whoever they are playing, whether that’s against a team of journalists, as Mr. McGuinness pointed out, or a fellow nation like Monaco. The spirit of an entire religion is the driving force behind this national side, an entirely football-transcending fact that nobody else can boast. When you play your football above holy grounds, you may very well experience your own ‘Hand of God’ moment.

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On the next rendition of Around the World, the small island nation of Nauru will be examined. How did a nation once intrigued by the sport of football give way to a different one, losing its own competitive league on the way? All that and more will be revealed on the second edition of Around the World: A Deep Dive into Football’s Global Influence.

Special thanks to Pat McGuinness, who was kind enough to inform me on the intricacies of football within Vatican City. Be sure to check out his blog, patmcguinness.blogspot.com, and follow his blog on Twitter, @PatsFballBlog.

Featured Image provided by w-dog.net 

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