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Culture

The Vatican's "Soccer Missionaries"

The Vatican is not well known for its promotion of sports but with its new sports radio channel, the Holy See is attempting to coax back its flock through the healing power of sport, specifically soccer.

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The Italians know the importance of divine intervention

In Italy, they're known as "soccer missionaries." These are the priests and even cardinals who provide commentary on sports.

Now the official radio for the Vatican has started a new show devoted solely to sports. Listeners can tune in weekly to hear the Catholic Church's take on anything from the latest scandals to bad refereeing decisions. While the show is a first for Vatican radio, the link between the church and soccer goes back a long way.

A typical Monday morning at Vatican radio begins with a papal news update, some musical spiritual inspiration and then something completely different.

"Non solo sport" -- Not Only Sports - is a new weekly show on Vatican Radio's 105 Live, the FM station in Rome that hit the airwaves four years ago in an attempt to give the Vatican a new, younger voice. But with the average age of priests somewhere in the 60s, youth is relative.

Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini is the regular commentator on Non Solo Sport. He's 88. Each week he phones in to give host Luca Collodi his take on anything from doping in cycling to the presence of foreign players on Italy's club teams. The show has even caught the interest of the secular media, and the Italian state-run Rai radio picked up Non Solo Sport after its first edition and rebroadcasts it nationally.

Clerical soccer commentary is hardly new in Italy. For years, a nun who was a fan of the Rome team Lazio was a media sweetheart. And the Catholic daily The Roman Observer offers extensive sports coverage.

Paddy Agnew, who has covered sports for the Irish Times in Italy for 20 years, said the church has never shied away from talking soccer.

"Well, I suppose it's simple enough," he told DW-RADIO. "In a Catholic country, people are going to be involved in things.

"I come from Ireland and there are a couple of priests in Ireland who are famous for being tipsters (betting on horses) because horse racing is a national sport in Ireland. So it's normal enough you'd have it here. You've always had people connected to the church playing a role in various cultural manifestations of Italian life, so why not in football?"

Soccer a grass roots part of Catholic life

Papst Johannes Paul II ist gestorben

Pope John Paul II was very happy that Paulo di Canio had scored the winner for Lazio that Sunday

Even John Paul II was widely known to have loved soccer. He played goalkeeper as a boy and was also quietly rumored to have rooted for the Lazio team.

Soccer historian Stefano Romita said the roots of the game in Italy were planted on the very fields of the Catholic Church.

"Every boy grew up playing soccer after school on the church field," Romita said. "There was space to play, free breakfast, and other little treats in exchange for serving at the mass.

"Whether you were religious or not, as a boy, you spent your free time at the parish church. So the first soccer fields were there, with real goal posts and balls. Playing there, we felt like real soccer players. Like the ones we went to see on Sundays in the stadium."

Continue reading to find out why not all Italians are happy about the church's involvement in sports.

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