Page 5, 2nd August 1991

2nd August 1991
Page 5
Page 5, 2nd August 1991 — Jesus saves but Virdis scores on the rebound

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Locations: Rome, Cracow, Turin, Naples, Florence


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Jesus saves but Virdis scores on the rebound

"RUN to God just as our team is running towards the UEFA Cup", is just one of a series of petitions and prayers written especially by Italian clergy to cope with a new demand for spirituality from an unexpected quarter.

Professional footballers, soccer-mad Italy's earthly gods, are re-discovering their Catholic faith to the point that the country's latter day pagan temples, or football stadiums, have become mini shrines.

The footballers themselves have formed a prayer group which is open to professional players from all divisions and which organises prayer s' lions. They are the "Athletes of Christ" and their motto is "Goals and Prayer".

Such is the new religious fervour among first division sides for instance that one team manager suspended his ace striker, not because he failed to score but because he refused to attend a special mass.

"Saying no to God will not help us win the cup," the manager of Lecce, Franco Jurlano, told sports reporters announcing that he had suspended striker Paolo Virdis, Jurlano had the backing of Lecce's trainer, former Poland international Zbigniew Boniek who was born in Cracow, Pope John Paul II's own diocese. He is a frequent visitor to the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican who sits on the sidelines saying his rosary throughout matches.

Italian church leaders generally credit the Lecce team under Jurlano and Boniek, who go to six o'clock mass every morning, with setting the new religious trend among footballers.

Both manager and trainer are convinced Lecce's successes are not clue to on-the-pitch tactics but to the 25-mile-long pilgrimage they expect players to make on foot to the local Marian shrine every time they lose a game.

The terrible two have also now fired the team's "spiritual adviser" of 20 years, Fr Giorgio Patrizi on the grounds that he was not "inspiring enough".

"I was told I was no help to the team and was promptly sent off, so to speak," he said in a statement, heightening the end of season tension in the Italian league over the Lecce bosses' decisions in the name of God. Bishop Cosmo Francesco Ruppi of Lecce did little to restore calm when asked to comment on the affair: "I am ready and willing to absolve both of them of their sins (manager and trainer) as long as the team moves up the league table".

After a whole soccer season of similar manifestations of newfound faith up and down the league, the Italian national press is analysing the phenomenon. Some believe John Paul II has brought influence to bear.

A former player himself, the Pope is a keen soccer fan and has delivered an estimated 300 pastoral addresses for footballers and other athletes. And on the tide of the new religion resurgence in the stadiums, the Italian association, the Popular Sports Movement, has just published a book collating them all and entitled John Paul II and Sport.

"Our football pitches are now also providing the spectacle of synchronised genuflections, 'said the prestigious daily, La Stampa.

World Cup ace Bruno Giordano of Rome is a devotee of the Eternal City's "Madonna del Carmine" and participates regularly in Marian processions to the sanctuary. His team-mate Bruno Conti is devoted to John XXIII and slips pictures of the Good Pope under his shin pads.

Their rivals on Rome's second team, Lazio, pedal about 20 miles to the Shrine of Divine Love on bicycles to leave their jerseys there for grace received when they win their matches.

Two Juventas players not only swop their jerseys with their adversaries after games but. present them with bibles, too.

Italy's most expensive footballer, Roberto Baggio, whom Juventus bought from Florence for £13 million, caused national outrage by announcing that he had become a Buddhist.

"He is not a Buddhist at all. He's an imbecile", retorted Mgr Giancarlo Setti, Florence's chaplain and one of many in the Tuscan city who have yet to forgive Baggio for selling his soul to Juventas of Turin.

Mgr Setti was inspired to publish a sonnet on the historic event of this past soccer season Baggio's moving refusal at the climax of one league game between Juventus and Florence to take a penalty kick against his old team and his subsequent bursting into tears at the goal line. Mgr Setti penned these lines to commemorate the occasion: "I am moved by that abdication/ by Baggio of the kick/ Even though he was criticised/ For dropping a professional brick."

Italy had just recovered from the "scandal of the great refusal" as the Baggio affair came to be known, when stadia all over the country were shaken by another. The German-born Inter Milan player and staunch Lutheran Jurgen Klinsmann refused to shake hands with Pope John Paul II during a special audience for his team.

The second great refusal of the season came despite Inter's wellrooted sense of religion which includes special spiritual courses for players led by Cremona monk, Br Roberto Ferrarri, a professor at Milan's University who adorns his rough habit with his Inter supporters' scarf.

In Naples, where even the pedestrian crossings are painted blue and white in honour of the southern port city side, the stadium is already dedicated to St Paul and now boasts a new Marian shrine in the locker rooms.

Other chaplains prefer to turn their attention to the terraces where hooliganism is gaining ground. They include former missionaries like Capuchin Fedele Bisceglie who reckons that now that the footballers of his flock the Cosenza team have been evangelised, it's the fans' turn.

"The gospel tells us that Christ came not for the righteous but for and Timberland desert boots as he sinners", said Br Fedele, in habit handed out gospel tracts to the lads.

The Atalanta team's chaplain, Dominican Don Alvaro prefers to distribute his own compositions on the terraces of the local stadium, such as: "Run to God, just as Atalanta is running towards the UEFA Cup".

Paolo Virdis, the Lecce striker suspended for initiating the season of "great refusals" by failing to attend mass, has pledged to fight his manager's decision, possibly in the sacrosanct forum of the Italian Football Association.

He refuted his new press nickname "The Heretic" and was forced to declare publicly that he was as Catholic as the next footballer.

tohalveews but n whatever spiritual attitude ais free tohe likes

one has the right to wave spirituality around like a big stick in the name of goals", he said.

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