Argentina’s pope goes for the Saints in soccer

He could have chosen the Devils. Instead he turned to the

Saints.

In a country where a blurry line separates religion from

football, or soccer as Americans know the sport, it’s only

appropriate that the first Argentine pope is a fan of team partly

founded by and named for a priest.

The man who became Pope Francis on Wednesday, Jorge Mario

Bergoglio, has long followed the Saints of San Lorenzo, one of five

most traditional teams in the Argentine Football Association. One

of its rivals, appropriately, is the Red Devils team of

Independiente.

It would be close to heresy for an Argentine to shun the sport.

This is the country that glories in Diego Maradona’s ”hand of

God” goal in the 1986 World Cup against England, a victory that

led Argentines to boast that ”God is Argentine.”

And Francis is certainly orthodox, in the sporting sense at

least.

Bergoglio grew up in Buenos Aires’ Flores neighborhood, not far

from the San Lorenzo stadium, and like his father, he formed a bond

with the team. That continued as he rose up the Roman Catholic

hierarchy to become archbishop of Argentina’s capital.

He’s even a member of the association that owns the club, and

was presented with a team jersey after saying Mass in the team

chapel – it’s the kind of club that has a chapel – in May 2011. San

Lorenzo is known to fans as the Cyclone, the Saints or the Crows,

the latter an allusion to the black vestments worn by its

founder.

News that Bergoglio had been elected pope elated the team.

”It’s a pride for the institution to know that the first South

American pope is a member of San Lorenzo,” the club said in a news

release.

”In truth, I can’t believe it. My veins are running with a

sensation very hard to describe, but very beautiful at the same

time,” said midfielder Angel Correa in comments published by the

team website.

The team got its start with a group of youths who played

football in the streets of Buenos Aires in 1907, according to its

website.

A priest, Lorenzo Massa, watched from his church as they played

along a streetcar line and came out to warn them against the

dangers. Massa offered to let them use the church grounds instead,

and even made a set of goalposts.

In return, according to the club, he insisted they study the

catechism and go to Mass each Sunday, a requirement that seems to

have lapsed over the years.

When the team formally became a club in 1908, it adopted the

name San Lorenzo in honor of the priest.

One of the team’s historic stars, Alberto Acosta told Fox Sports

Del Plata that he had once given one of his jerseys to the

archbishop. ”After I retired, Bergoglio told me that because I was

going, we wouldn’t score goals on anybody.”

San Lorenzo has won 10 professional championships in Argentina’s

first division, though the forces of the Devil have been a bit more

successful over the years, winning 14. San Lorenzo won the last

meeting in February, 2-1.

San Lorenzo stumbled to a 12th place finish last season and it’s

the only one of Argentina’s big five teams that has never won the

Copa Libertadores, South America’s most important club

championship.

For San Lorenzo fan Daniel Gonzalez, the news from Rome eases

that pain: ”This new pope is a fan of San Lorenzo and that is

worth five Copas Libertadores!”

But even pride at the Argentine pope can’t overcome the rivalry

among the country’s soccer clubs.

Lucas Roldan, a 22-year-old fan of Boca Juniors, said during a

break from teaching mathematics as a volunteer in a Buenos Aires

slum on Thursday that he is happy that a compatriot is now leading

the global church, but added a barb: ”I’m with Boca and he’s for

San Lorenzo. I imagine this is the first international trophy

they’ve won.”

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Associated Press Writer Luis Andres Henao contributed to this

report.