Confessions of a game with Mass appeal

By Matthew Syed (THE TIMES, 10/10/07):

Not satisfied with its divine undertaking to convert the world to its own version of Christianity, the Vatican has embarked on a new crusade. Through the Italian Conference of Bishops, it has bought a stake in AC Ancona, a third division Italian club, with the objective of injecting some “overdue” morality into football.

“We want to bring some ethics back into the game, which has been undergoing a grave crisis in terms of sportsmanship,” Edoardo Menichelli, the Archbishop of Ancona, said. It is understood that bishops are drawing up an ethical code specifically related to the beautiful (soon to be called beatific) game.

Quite why football is considered so depraved as to warrant the intervention of their holinesses is still unclear, although some of the more devout followers of Catholicism are hoping that the new code will be both wideranging and exhaustive. The possibility of a papal encyclical probing the theological minefield of the offside rule has been mentioned.

Sources have indicated that some of the Church’s most serious concerns relate to football supporters. It has come to the attention of the bishops that it is traditional for fans to wave banners and sing songs that are offensive, satirical and otherwise theologically dubious. It has therefore been suggested that supporters of AC Ancona chant from an authorised list of ditties such as “you’re not hymning any more”, and “there’s only one Holy Trinity”.

Of course some might suggest that bishops ought to have more important things to do with their time than pontificate on the iniquities of such things as diving in the penalty area, but let us not underestimate the extent to which football and the Church are natural bedfellows. Both have rapidly grown in wealth (even if no football club can yet contend with the Vatican’s estimated stash of $15 billion). Both are generally against the use of barrier contraception – although in the case of footballers this is usually because of drunken forgetfulness.

And both have been robust defenders of homophobia, something emphasised only last month with the publication of Graeme Le Saux’s memoirs, which strongly implied that the majority of professional footballers endorse Pope Benedict’s stated opinion that homosexuality is a “tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”.

Ultimately, it could be argued that it is a bit rich for an institution responsible for the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and opposition to stem-cell research to lecture football (or anything else) on the subject of morality. But let us be generous. If the fear of God is what it takes to persuade Cristiano Ronaldo to desist from simulation, perhaps the intervention of the bishops is no bad thing.