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Pray as you play

Published: Friday 29 December 2006, 7.59CET
Despite apparent negotiations with Franz Beckenbauer it seems the Vatican will not be launching a bid to join Serie A, but KF Tirana do rather appear to have been blessed by divine intervention and Wayne Rooney has reason to be thankful too.
by Paul Saffer
Published: Friday 29 December 2006, 7.59CET

Pray as you play

Despite apparent negotiations with Franz Beckenbauer it seems the Vatican will not be launching a bid to join Serie A, but KF Tirana do rather appear to have been blessed by divine intervention and Wayne Rooney has reason to be thankful too.

At this time of year it is appropriate to turn to matters theological. And specifically, the brief hope this week that the Vatican would soon be taking on the likes of FC Internazionale Milano in Serie A.

Cardinal sin
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who holds the role of Vatican state secretary - essentially the prime minister of the tiny Papal territory - dropped the hint in Monday's press. "The Vatican could, in future, field a team that plays at the top level, with [AS] Roma, Inter Milan, Genoa [1893] and [UC] Sampdoria," said the former Archbishop of Genoa, who used to commentate on matches for local TV during his time in that position. "We can recruit lads from the seminaries. I remember that in the [FIFA] World Cup of 1990 there were 42 players among the teams who made it to the finals who came from Salesian training centres all over the world. If we just take the Brazilian students from our Pontifical universities we could have a magnificent squad." Indeed the Vatican, though not a UEFA member, do have a useful national team, who have held San Marino and Monaco (the state, not the club) in the past and recently beat Swiss non-league team SV Vollmond 5-1. There were even suggestions that Giovanni Trapattoni might become coach. However on Tuesday, Cardinal Bertone came clean. "Trapattoni has not signed any contract and I think that no coach will sign a contract with Vatican clubs because it will still take quite some time. The idea reported yesterday by newspapers is unfeasible. I've more important things to do than managing a Vatican football team."

Divine intervention
However, this column is nothing if not Schleiermacherian in its ecumenicalism, and notes an apparent example of divine footballing intervention from the world of Islam. KF Tirana may be top of the Albanian league, but they were becoming concerned about the form of striker Hamdi Salihi. After a month without a goal from Salihi, club owner Refik Halili decided to take action and drafted in 30 Muslim priests to pray for the end of their barren spell. And 41 minutes into Sunday's match with FK Partizani, sure enough Salihi found the target in a 3-2 win, doubling their lead at the top to six points. "Salihi is a born striker and the fact he had not scored for four weeks had blocked him mentally," Halili said. "I think I lived up to my duty. God helped him score and Tirana to win."

New York trip
From acts of God to the Red Devils. Manchester United FC manager Sir Alex Ferguson rewarded his charges for their recent derby defeat of Manchester City FC by giving them a three-day holiday, and Wayne Rooney took the opportunity to jet off to New York with fiancée Colleen McLoughlin. There he attended a basketball fixture between the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics, splashing out on courtside seats. However, there was a nasty moment when 105kg Celtics player Paul Pierce tripped over Rooney's right foot, the one with the recently healed metatarsal. Fortunately, no harm was done to either athlete, and the Celtics won the match. Still, Rooney shuddered: "It was scary. He rolled right over my foot."

Smells like team spirit
If Pierce would have blamed Rooney for a Celtic defeat, we will never know. But there is no doubt that, with the stakes so high in football, sometimes participants in our great game may need to look to other, less hyped sports for a New Year's resolution-style lesson in dignity. Such as water polo, and specifically Uzbekistan goalkeeper Nikita Manakov. In the recent Asian Games in Doha, Manakov took part in a comfortable 14-4 win against Saudi Arabia, and was quick to hold his hand up with regard to the lack of a clean sheet. "The first goal was not my mistake, it was number four [team-mate Ravil Valishev]," Manakov graciously admitted. "He sucked. He made a lot of mistakes today and did not score." Merry Christmas.

Last updated: 29/12/06 15.20CET

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