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Jun 20, 2014

Who's your Papa?

A San Lorenzo jersey with a photo of Pope Francis.
A San Lorenzo jersey with a photo of Pope Francis.

BUENOS AIRES -- The Pope, whose direct line to the Almighty might be Argentina's secret weapon in this World Cup, loves to talk smack about sports. A year ago, his beloved San Lorenzo beat its more powerful and famous Buenos Aires rival Boca Juniors. After the game, Pope Francis rode in the Popemobile through St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, waving to the throng of tourists and worshipers. Some Boca fans shouted to him, and the Pope, never really breaking his rhythm, flashed a single finger, 1-0, the score of San Lorenzo-Boca, then shrugged, busting chops over the game.

The Pope, club membership No. 88235N-0, grew up following the team. He remembers the glory days after World War II, and the exploits of legends whose names are now almost completely forgotten. A connection has always existed between the church and the club. It was founded by a priest, and takes its red and blue colors from a vision of the Virgin. Their nickname is The Crows, slang for a priest dressed in all black. And now that they are plugged into the Vatican, the Pope's friends at the club hope he will help them finally win the Copa Libertadores, the Champions League of South America.

"We will need the Pope to win the Libertadores," fan Mario Benigni says, laughing. "He will be handy."

Benigni is hanging out in the club's chapel. His friend Oscar Lucchini, a local architect, is with him, and Oscar keeps messing up and calling the Pope by his given name. Every so often, he catches himself and apologizes.

"For me," Lucchini says, still obviously stunned that a guy he knows is the Pope, "he is Bergoglio still."

Oscar Lucchini, left, and Mario Benigni are soccer fans in Argentina who know Pope Francis.
Oscar Lucchini, left, and Mario Benigni are soccer fans in Argentina who know Pope Francis.

The chapel, which Lucchini designed, overlooks San Lorenzo's bullring of a stadium, which is stocky and round. This used to be just a patch of grass inside the gate, and before games, a group of women always stopped and prayed here.

The three Rosas, people called them.

In this Catholic, superstitious continent, the ideas of faith and football have always been so tightly wound together that now they couldn't really exist without each other. There's a story about a Chilean player scoring a championship-winning goal in a Brazilian league game, and at the moment he swung his leg, a beam of light shone through a gray, overcast day, landing on the spot where he launched the ball into the back of the net. Many people believe fervently in a God who would actively intercede in a game they cared about.

So the Rosas aren't goofy old ladies. They are potentially powerful weapons.

Lucchini dreamed up the small church for the women, so they'd have a proper place to pray. He drew up the plans, and actor Viggo Mortensen, another San Lorenzo fan, wrote the check to get it built. The Pope, who was then the archbishop of Buenos Aires, made it official, putting the chapel under the authority of a priest in the slum which squats behind the far wall of the stadium. It's one of the most violent places in the city, and Bergoglio would often take the bus alone and walk the streets, washing the feet of the poor who lived there. Nobody ever messed with him.

When the chapel opened three years ago, Bergoglio agreed to give the first mass. He planned to take the bus from his modest downtown apartment next to the big downtown cathedral. A huge rain swept the city, and Lucchini finally convinced Bergoglio to accept a ride. They rode together in Lucchini's 1992 Fiat 147 Spazio, and when Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, local journalists ran a picture of the car and called it "the first Popemobile," which in Spanish is hilariously called "El Papamovil."

A few days after Francis became Pope, San Lorenzo played. The team ran onto the field with his picture printed on their jerseys. That day, the chapel was filled with people there to celebrate the baptism of a local child, one of 80 baptisms held in the team's church. In a room by the altar, a priest listened to the game and then suddenly stepped back into the chapel and excitedly addressed the gathering crowd.

"San Lorenzo scored!" he said.

The people cheered.

"With this pope," Lucchini says, "everything is more open. It's more easygoing. You can celebrate a goal during a baptism."

Two weeks later, Francis received the club president and secretary at the Vatican, who brought him a San Lorenzo shawl, and a photograph of them together shows the soccer team guys with big grins, as if they're thinking: Dude, can you believe we know the Pope?!

Standing in the chapel, Lucchini, a cute old man with white hair and a zip-up sweater, shakes his head in wonder.

"Can you imagine how I feel?" he asks.

The club officials brought back a blessed rosary and gave it to the three Rosas, who now use it when they pray before the games.

Lucchini's 1992 Fiat 147 Spazio, the car in which Bergoglio (before he became Pope Francis) would ride shotgun.
Lucchini's 1992 Fiat 147 Spazio, the car in which Bergoglio (before he became Pope Francis) would ride shotgun.

The sky turns gray while the old men tell the story of the building of the chapel, in the last hour before the first match of the World Cup would begin. Lucchini and Bergoglio, like everyone in Argentina, have high hopes for this national team, and while they acknowledge that Lionel Messi is the most important factor in any success, they do believe that perhaps they might have an in with Someone who could throw a little divine luck their way.

"Francis will give a hand," Lucchini says.

Before leaving to watch the Brazil-Croatia match, Lucchini tells one final story about the Pope. The priest in the nearby slum is a lifelong Boca fan who lives near San Lorenzo. Everyone in Argentina knows that despite being mediocre now, San Lorenzo is the only club with a winning record over the powerhouse Boca, and this past season, after the Crows' victory, the priest checked his email and found a message from the Pope.

"How do you feel living so close to your father?" Francis wrote, a historic message, since never before in the long history of the Papacy has His Holiness ever gloated over a soccer victory by dropping a "Who's your daddy?" on a dejected friend.

The Vatican declined comment.