Vatican's soccer team had little choice but refuse to play in Austria

(COMMENTARY) The Women’s World Cup in France may be breaking records on and off the field — but a story of a different kind has rocked the soccer world.

At a time when fans around the world are also enjoying world-class soccer at various tournaments such as the Copa America, Africa Cup of Nations and the Gold Cup, the women’s soccer team representing the Vatican (yes, the Vatican has a women’s soccer team) canceled its planned international debut this past weekend in Austria.

The reason? Sports, religion and politics made for a bad mix when players on the opposing team used Saturday’s scheduled friendly to protest the church’s position on abortion during the playing of the Vatican anthem, according to the Holy See.

The game against FC Mariahilf, which plays in the country’s third division, decided to celebrate the club’s 20th anniversary by extending a special invitation to play the Vatican’s newly-formed women’s team. In the end, the game was marred by pro-abortion and LGBTQ advocates looking to make a statement.

Indeed, the game in Vienna never even got started after players of the Austrian team pulled up their jerseys — only to reveal images of female reproductive organs and pro-abortion slogans on their backs and stomachs. If that wasn’t enough, fans unfurled several banners in the stands reading “Against Homophobia.” Despite that, a friendly handshake between the teams followed, but there would be no kick-off.

Vatican officials who attended the match, including the apostolic nuncio to Austria Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana, summoned the players to the sidelines, where Gianfranco Guadagnoli, who also coaches the Vatican’s men’s team, were waiting. That’s when the officials and players both decided to abandon the game. Moments later, an announcer reportedly informed fans over the loudspeaker that the match had been canceled.

This was only the second game in Vatican team history. The team — composed of Holy See employees and their female relatives, but no nuns — had made its debut on May 26 against AS Roma’s youth team, losing 10-0. That lopsided defeat hadn’t dampened the players’ spirits. Instead, the players had been greeted to a festive atmosphere before, during and after that game in Rome.

The unfortunate series of events that took place in Vienna, however, had the opposite effect. Disagreeing with the Vatican is one thing, but taking it out on a group of amateur players is certainly another. In a statement posted to FC Mariahilf’s Facebook page the following day, the team agreed with that sentiment. In its statement, the team apologized for the actions of the players and those in the crowd.

“We sincerely apologize to the Vatican team’s players and guests from near and far that the game was not played,” the club said. “Abandoning it was never intended, and we were looking forward to the friendly match.”

FC Mariahilf also said the incident was “independently organized” by some players and that they had requested for the banners to immediately be taken down.

Vatican’s spokesman Alessandro Gisotti declined to comment on the incident. The Telegraph reported that the Vatican’s press office referred journalists to an article published by Vatican News which read: “The Vatican players were expecting a simple game of sport and with their sports manager took a difficult decision, not to contest the game and continue the exploitation of an event for which they had prepared with joy.”

The incident only helped give the Vatican’s women’s team lots of attention on social media and gain some new fans from people previously unaware that the Holy See fields a women’s soccer team.

Pope Francis has said on numerous occasions that the church is completely opposed to abortion. Last month, he said it was akin to murder for hire.

“Is it licit to hire a hitman to solve a problem?" the pontiff said. “It is not lawful. Never, ever eliminate a human life or hire a hitman to solve a problem.”

Francis, who was born in Argentina, is also a well-known soccer fan who gave his blessing to the formation of the Vatican’s women’s team. In 2014, he met with players from San Lorenzo, his favorite Argentine team, during a trip to Buenos Aires. The team was fresh off winning the Copa Libertadores, the tournament that each year crowns the best South American club team.

“I greet the San Lorenzo champions," said a smiling pontiff, adding that the team is “part of my cultural identity.”

Francis and his favorite sport made headlines again this past April, when he said countryman and Barcelona star Lionel Messi may possess heavenly abilities on the field — but he’s no God.

"You can't say it and I don't believe it. I think people say ‘he is God’ just as they say ‘I adore you,’” Francis told the Spanish TV network La Sexta. “You have to adore only God. It's expressions that people use. This is a god with the ball on the pitch. It's a popular way that people have of expressing themselves. Of course it is a joy [to watch Messi], but he is not God.”

The Vatican also has a men’s soccer team that dates back to 1985, composed largely of seminarians and young priests. In addition, the Clericus Cup, inaugurated in 2007, is a soccer tournament contested by teams from various Rome-based seminaries. The NCAA-style tournament was the brainchild of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a very big soccer fan.

In 2000, Saint Pope John Paul II established a Vatican sports department with the aim of “reinvigorating the tradition [of sport] within the Christian community.”

Earlier this year, the Vatican announced it had formed a track and field team, even toying with the notion of competing in the Summer Olympics. The Guardian covered the story with this brilliant headline: “Nuns on the run: Vatican launches athletics team and targets Olympics.”