Pope Francis, an ardent football fan, warms the heart of the faithful with message of hope

Pope Francis waves to the crowd at the University of Nairobi as he arrives to deliver an open-air mass on November 26, 2015. Pope Francis held his first open-air mass in Africa on November 26 with huge crowds calling heavy rains "God's blessing" as they sung and danced in the Kenyan capital.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd at the University of Nairobi as he arrives to deliver an open-air mass on November 26, 2015. Pope Francis held his first open-air mass in Africa on November 26 with huge crowds calling heavy rains “God’s blessing” as they sung and danced in the Kenyan capital. PHOTO | GEORGINA GOODWIN | AFP

As soon as my fellow football fan from Argentina succeeded Benedict XVI as Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, I contracted this strain of Francis fever but on no account am I seeking treatment. I don’t want to see no doc; He is the one, the only remedy. (Apologies, Gregory Isaacs, those are your words, of course, but you were singing about some night nurse. Good song, Mr Cool Ruler, I love it, and RIP).

But I am talking about Pope Francis. I just like him. There is something about him that really connects and it is not just for our mutual love of the beautiful game. That just makes the connection even stronger. His humility, his charity, his good smile and, above all, his teachings – he comes together as just The One I was looking for. He always says what I want to hear. I confess that I am not very good at hearing what I don’t want to hear. But I try.

Pope Francis is a card-carrying fan of the San Lorenzo Football Club in his native Buenos Aires. To this day, the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles still pays his dues to the club. We have it on the authority of Marcelo Tinelli, vice-president of the 107 year-old club, that Pope Francis has not let his global responsibilities distract him from doing such a mundane thing as paying his bills.

“His payment is there, bang on time, every month,” Tinelli said. “He pays his dues religiously. It’s paid through an automatic debit.”

Long before he became Pope, Francis always rode the public bus in Buenos Aires and engaged fellow commuters on every day talk, not least of which were the fortunes of San Lorenzo Football Club. He was fully engaged, celebrating the victories and lamenting their losses. Deep inside him, the future Vicar of Jesus Christ must have known he was following in some hallowed footsteps; San Lorenzo was founded in 1908 by a priest named Lorenzo Massa.

It was based in Bajo Flores, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires, a fixture of the imagination of the young man who did not yet know that he wanted to be a priest and even when he did, his beloved mother did not approve of the choice. Had he not respectfully contradicted her, our world would never have known Pope Francis, at least not this one from Argentina.

My attraction to Pope Francis, over and beyond what he has spoken to me as a human being on issues such as tolerance and compassion is what he has said about what football. To us in Kenya, we know the game as a theatre of exploitation. This is where fat cats, with the best connections and with no scruples, use the people’s game to fatten themselves. This is needless, of course, but they fatten themselves all the same.

Francis says football teaches three lessons that can promote peace and solidarity throughout the world: one, the importance of training and working hard if goals are to be met, two, the absolute requirement of fair play and team work and three, the abiding need to respect and honour one’s opponents without whom the first two requirements cannot be achieved.

Before last year’s World Cup in Brazil, he sent this message to the world: “To win, we must overcome individualism, selfishness, all forms of racism, intolerance and manipulation of people. (Individual) greed in football, as in life, is an obstacle. Let nobody turn their back on society and feel excluded! No to segregation! No to racism!”

He was addressing the world. So there was no way he could address Kenya football’s specific problems, which are a toxic cocktail of tribalism, corruption, incompetence and impunity. Kenya needs divine deliverance from these. Its electorate has lost the way. Every election cycle, they vote for those who are against their own best interests. Intrinsically tribal, they see no other way. And then they complain.

The football fan in Pope Francis has not obscured the enormous value of all sport for the advancement of the human course. He said:

“Sport is not only a form of entertainment, but also – and above all I would say – a tool to communicate values that promote the good that is in humans and help build a more peaceful and fraternal society.”

And to the football players of the world, including our very own celebs who may be tempted to menace lesser mortals or to spend all night long smoking shisha on the eve of critical international matches, Pope Francis had a plea: “Dear players, you are very popular. People follow you, and not just on the field but also off it. That’s a social responsibility. For better or worse, you are role models.”

When he speaks from the Papal throne as the Vicar of Jesus Christ, he is infallible. But when he speaks as a fan of the San Lorenzo football team, we communicate from the same level. I can celebrate Gor Mahia’s achievements and lament AFC Leopards sorrows. Both of us are fans. As Pope, he received his beloved club, champions of the Copa Libertadores, Latin America’s most prestigious club competition, with these words: “I greet the San Lorenzo champions. The club is part of my cultural identity.”

Pope Francis truly speaks to me.

And speaking of our beloved giants, struggling as they are with matters of sponsorship, it is wise to remember that Francis has spoken out against hooliganism which keeps good people away from where they would otherwise want to be. He always requests people to pray for him and he did that to the football players of Italy and Argentina, too, before their first friendly match after his enthronement, in a message that may be lost to those who have conned and bribed their way to our leadership but which must be repeated all the same.

It’s simple but it touches the bottom of the heart. He told the players: “Pray for me, so that I, on the field upon which God has placed me, I can play an honest and courageous game for the good of us all.”

Pope Francis, just for the record, is not the first sporting Pontiff in living memory. His predecessor one papacy removed, John Paul II, was a great skier from his youth until age and infirmity forced him to give up. John Paul loved the Alps and he grabbed every free moment from his pastoral duties to go there and ski.

He had always made fun of his mishaps on the snow (“It’s unbecoming of a Cardinal to ski badly”) and now, as the 264th successor to St Peter, he expressed apprehension about his pastime: “I will ski again when they let me.” Whose heart could not mellow at the small wish of one of the greatest popes in 2000 years wanting just a little time for himself in the mountains?

I earnestly hope, for the sake of us all, that his visit to our homeland will not be in vain. I hope that his message of a united humanity, devoid of tribe and race and faith and all those other tiny things that comprise mountains in our hearts and minds, will endure. I hope his visit here will not be in vain. I hope that it will not be business as usual now that he has gone.

In a sporting environment that has been gloomy for so long, it is uplifting to do a column with a message of hope. When he raised his hands in blessing out of the window after the white smoke had wafted away and smiled broadly at us and asked us to pray for him, I thought to myself: “Something good has happened.” I have not changed my mind since then.

Those cardinals who had sat in the Sistine Chapel and after thoughtful deliberations elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope on March 13, 2013 made an inspired choice. I thank them. Pope Francis is the antidote for our pervasive corruption and tribalism. Gianluigi Buffon, the great Italian national goalkeeper and captain spoke for me when, after handing the Pope an autographed ball, said:

“He’s warmed up the hearts of all the faithful who might have drifted away from the church during past papacies. With a pope who’s like this, it’s easier to become better.”

This is exactly what my strain of Francis Fever makes me feel. I perfectly relate to that drifting feeling, that alienation, and confess that I am a failed Catholic. But because of Pope Francis, I know that it is possible, and even easy, to become better. Viva Il Papa!