Football tournaments spring up every day on fields across the world but few are played on ground holier than the Clericus Cup. Dressed predominantly in black and white, supporters gathered around a grass pitch on a hilltop overlooking the Vatican City - the world’s smallest independent state - to watch the kick off of the 16-team competition on Saturday 24 February. From then until June, students from Rome’s Catholic institutes along with lay employees of St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museums and Swiss Guards will battle it out for the right to be called Clericus Cup champions.

"You are playing in view of St. Peter's Cupola, so behave well," smiled Cardinal Pio Laghi before getting the ball under way for the first match between the Collegio Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church College), a side featuring players hailing from Africa, Asia and Latin America, and an all-Brazilian team fielded by the Gregorian University.

Earlier, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State and No2 official, had left a message outlining the spiritual value of football and the merits of its universality. “The Clericus Cup should reaffirm the educational and pastoral value of sport, and strengthen feelings of true friendship and fruitful sharing," it read.

Players will perform in a competition registering just a few changes to the ordinary rules of the game. Matches are an hour long, and instead of yellow or red, blue cards are handed out by the referee, subjecting the offending player to a reflective five-minute spell on the sidelines.  

Surprise start
Cheered on by fellow priests, nuns and an amused flock of camera-clicking tourists, neither side was prepared to give an inch in a feisty first half of the opening encounter. In fact it took a penalty to earn the breakthrough with the Collegio Mater Ecclesiae eventually running out surprising 6-0 winners against their Brazilian brothers.

"We have lost, but we are all laughing, and this shows that sport should be a joy for all," said Reginei Jose Modolo or ‘Zico’, a 32-year-old midfielder on the Gregorian University team as the players shook hands amid broad smiles at the final whistle.

"I expect the tournament to create a friendly relationship among the players and the teams," added from the sidelines Cameroon's Father Emil Martin, who plays for the Pontifical Urban College.

In all 300 players will take part in the competition from 50 nations. There is a team of Croatians and a squad of student priests from North America but most sides will feature a mixed bag of nationalities.  The oldest player is a 54-year-old Basque, Yarza Inaki, while the performer with the highest profile will be 23-year-old Davide Tisato, who once starred in Chievo Verona’s youth side. 

“We will continue our amateur competitions ... and carry on measuring ourselves on our sports fields," added Cardinal Bertone, a former football commentator whose tongue-in-cheek comments on the ‘Vatican building up a team of the calibre of Roma, Inter (Milan), Genoa or Sampdoria’ made world headlines a month ago. “I hope I can come to support the odd game, maybe even do commentary for Vatican Radio."

With the hope of "reinvigorating the tradition (of sport) within the Christian community," the Holy See has been promoting the game for some time now. In 2004, the late  Pope John Paul II , a goalkeeper in his youth in Poland, set up a Vatican sports department and, in 2000, presided over an all-star game at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. The current Pope, Benedict XVI, was reported to be engrossed by the exploits of both Germany, his birthplace, and eventual winners, Italy, during the 2006 FIFA World Cup™.

The 16 teams involved in the competition are separated into two groups with the top sides playing off for a chance to perform in the June final. Matches are scheduled for all days - except Sundays.