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March 15, 2013

Argentina’s pope goes for the Saints in soccer

BUENOS AIRES — 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!”

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