On the morning of the finals, the Collegio Urbano team met in front of the Virgin Mary chapel in their church and sang a prayer. It was an emotional moment. The team had never been this close to winning the Clericus Cup, the soccer tournament that pits priests, deacons and seminarians against each other at the Vatican ever year.
I had chosen to follow the Collegio Urbano club a week earlier, while photographing the Cup’s semi-finals at the Pontificio Oratorio San Pietro, the Vatican’s sport complex. I had picked them partly because of where the players came from. Also, I liked the Collegio, the old building they all lived in inside the Vatican.
The Urbano team is almost entirely composed of Africans, with the exception of one Indonesian and one Indian. They’re all very serious young theologians. But when they play soccer, they’re like every young person in the world. That was really interesting to me. If you look at the images on the field, you won’t be able to tell what they do the rest of the time (which is mostly reading, studying and praying).
Apart from the dome of San Pietro in the background and the fact that it says “My Captain Is Papa Francesco” on all the jerseys, the Clericus Cup is just like any soccer tournament. Rules are the same except players get together to pray on the field at the end of each game. Also, in addition to red and yellow cards, there’s a blue card that gets you a five-minute time-out on the sidelines for spiritual reflection.
Teams compete seriously and they can even be a little rough sometimes, though the players will always be very respectful and friendly with each other. The atmosphere in the stands is boisterous. The fans—mostly priests and seminarians—are very much into it: during one game supporters were singing “the blue and yellows, they’re my only faith!”
During the finals, I felt like I was witnessing sport in its true sense, without money or interests. They played like children: just to have fun and to win something that meant everything and nothing at the same time.
I was lucky. Collegio Urbano won the cup. The celebration on the field was wild and when they got back to their building, everyone was waiting for them. Albert Koetsly, who had just been ordained a deacon and who was set to return to Lesotho after six years at the College, was so proud to have won the cup before leaving. There was a banquet and the team captain made a speech. They danced and played music for a short while, and then everybody went back to studying.