FROM THE BANKS OF THE RIVER TIBER rose the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Even today, to gaze upon the wonderments of the age bring about a certain awe inspiring emotion.
The Colosseum, almost 2,000 years later, still stands proudly on the Roman skyline; a place where gladiators delighted and enthralled the masses in equal measure. In modern Rome it is the Stadio Olimpico that can lay claim to being the colosseum of its day, the gladiators now being the men who wear the shirts of AS Roma and SS Lazio.
This is a city that has come to live and breathe football. There is a part of this ancient city, though, where one might suspect football rarely thrives. This tiny enclave measures only 0.17 square miles and is officially recognised as the smallest country in the world. It is, of course, Vatican City.
When you think about the spiritual home of the roman catholic church, football is most likely not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet by digging deeper you find that the city that has God at its core has another religion that thrives. A religion that also has a stranglehold over the rest of the globe. That religion is football.
The state of Vatican City as we know it today came into being in February 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Treaty. The treaty, which was signed by then-Italian leader Benito Mussolini and Secretary of State to the Papacy Cardinal Pietro Gasparri in the Lateran Palace – hence the name – officially recognised the validity of the Vatican State.
The key terms of the treaty saw the papacy recognise the state of Italy with Rome as its capital, while on the flip side of that, Italy recognised papal sovereignty over the Vatican City and secured full independence for the Pope. Italy also paid the Holy See reparations of close to 750,000,000 million lira.
While the vatican state itself may only be 86 years old, the basilica that stands at its heart has been there for a considerably longer time. Back in the period around 323-326AD, Emperor Constantine commissioned the building of a basilica on the spot where a race track known as the Circus Nero stood.
The circus held plenty of significance for christians as it was there that the Emperor Nero executed many for their beliefs. The building, now known as St. Peter’s Basilica, stood on this spot until around 1506 when the building we know today was constructed in its place.
The first ever football match to take place in the vatican occurred on January 7, 1521. The match itself was even attended by the Pope at that time, Leo XI. To describe it as a football match, though, would be a bit of a stretch. The game was based on the sport of Calcio Fiorentino – a brutal and ancient game that still survives to this day.
For an outsider looking in Calcio Fiorentino seems to resemble a war zone. Each team has 27 players on the field at one time with the goal of getting the ball into the opponents end by any means necessary. Fights are common place, and the sight of players being carried from the pitch bloodied is nothing out of the ordinary.
For any semblance of the modern incarnation of the game being played in the city we must fast forward to 1947. It was in this year that the first official football matches were held in the vatican. Four teams consisting of employees of the state bandied together to hold a tournament.
The tournament itself, however, didn’t last long. Due to the fierce competitive nature of the matches the competition was soon suspended and for the next two decades only friendly matches were permitted. It wasn’t until 1966 that competitive matches returned to the city.
Then, in 1973, the first Campionato Vaticano di Calcio was held; believe it or not the vatican has its own league, the state equivalent of Serie A, the Premier League, La Liga and all other national leagues.
The first season saw seven teams compete with L’Osservatore Romano, the vatican newspaper, finishing top. In the years since, the league has gone from strength to strength and in 1985 introduced a secondary cup competition. In 2007 it introduced a further cup – the Super Cup – to be played between the league champions and the cup winners.
The league itself is only open to employees of various positions in the vatican. The most recent 2015 edition consisted of seven teams, with employees from such branches as the Swiss Guards, the vatican museum, newspaper, radio station and police force all entering teams. The 2015 campaign was won by the Musei Vaticani team, their second title, fired home by the league’s top scorer, Quarta, with 19 goals.
This league, though, is not the only football competition associated with the vatican; another perhaps more well-known also takes place in the shadows of St. Peter’s, the Clericus Cup. The brainchild of Cardinal Tarcisio the cup was launched in 2007 and consists of teams from various seminaries and religious colleges in and around the city of Rome.
Each team that competes in the competition is made of priests and seminarians. Up to 70 nationalities are represented across the 16 teams that compete. All matches are played at the Columbus Pius XI field and the Redemptoris Mater Seminary won the inaugural tournament, beating the Pontifical Lateran university 1-0 in the final.
As one might expect from a football competition consisting of only priests and trainee priests there are a few rule changes to the game. Matches don’t last 90 minutes like a regular game and any draws are settled by penalties with no extra time. One of the most unique features of the Clericus Cup is, along with the yellow and red cards, the referee also has a blue card. If a blue card is brandished to a player he is sin-binned for up to five minutes so that he can reflect on his foul play.
While you might not expect a group of priests playing football to be ultra-competitive, you would be sorely mistaken. The players’ will to win is just like any others who play the game. Teams are also backed on by their boisterous support, made up of the other seminarians from the colleges.
In fact, one year neighbours close to the stadium complained of the excessive noise coming from the fans singing, playing drums and, in one instance, lighting flares. Despite being such a small competition it gets a surprising amount of media coverage; many are taken aback by its fascinating story. The cup even has its own Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channel showcasing short highlights and its own version of Soccer Saturday, where the presenters sit around the table and run the rule over the teams participating.
The most recent cup, which only finished at the end of May, was won by the Pontifico Collegio Urbano beating Mater Ecclesiae 2-1 in the final. The match itself proved to be a tense affair, with the Urbano College taking the 2-1 lead into half-time and then sitting back and defending against the Ecclesiae onslaught in the second half.
The team, made up mostly of African priests and seminarians, held out to claim back to back titles. For the unfortunate Ecclesiae side it was their second defeat in the final in three years.
On the international front, Vatican City, like mostly every other country in the world, has its own team. Despite being recognised throughout the world as an indepepdent nation, the vatican is not part of the FIFA family and as such matches are rare.
The side itself consists of players who are employees, mostly Swiss Guard, in the vatican, similar to the way the league is run. Their first match took place back in 1994 and ended in 0-0 draw with San Marino. Since then, the team has only played sporadically with most matches coming against another team not recognised by FIFA in the shape of Monaco. Despite its lack of footballing prowess the vatican has drawn in some pretty big names to manage the team on occasion.
The biggest is unquestionably Italian legend Giovanni Trapattoni, who has expressed interest in managing the side full time when he retires from the competitive game.
As a nation Vatican City is never likely to pull up many trees, but the world’s smallest has shown it is just as football mad as anywhere else on God’s green earth.
By Kevin Nolan. Follow @KevinNolan11