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Mar 17, 2013

The Saints get their Pope

Crowds thronging Saint Peter's Square on Wednesday to welcome the new Pope knew that, quite apart from the fact his predecessor is still alive, they were witnessing an historic event. Francisco I (as he's known on his home continent) is the first Latin American to become leader of the world's Catholics, and also the first Jesuit. Of course, everyone who had their Papal fact-checking priorities right had only one question on their minds; which football team does this Argentine Pope support?

The answer's a fitting one really, because Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not only a fan, but a paid-up member of San Lorenzo de Almagro, a club named after a saint (after a local priest helped the club's founders find a plot of ground to train on), and known - among other nicknames - as El Santo, 'the Saint'. Perhaps also fittingly for a man widely lauded for his humility, San Lorenzo are also the only one of Argentina's 'Big Five' clubs to never have won the Copa Libertadores.

That latter fact has inevitably already been the source of various jokes from fans of other clubs, not least of course because photographs of a high-ranking priest lifting a precious metal-plated cup aren't too hard to find (just add the caption 'this is the only cup you'll be seeing'... you get the idea), but the club have been quick to act on the enormous publicity boost this appointment has given them, tweeting a scanned image of Bergoglio's membership card shortly after his confirmation as pontiff. Although his membership (the current membership, at least) only began in 2008, he's been a fan for much longer; when he was a young boy, his father played for the club's basketball team, and took him to watch the football side regularly.

Suddenly finding himself rather overshadowed is the man who, before Wednesday, used to enjoy the title of 'World's Most Famous San Lorenzo Fan' - Viggo Mortensen. The actor spent a large part of his childhood in Buenos Aires (he speaks fluent Spanish and even starred in an Argentine film, 'Todos Tenemos Un Plan', last year), and has been a San Lorenzo fan since then, and until recently, wrote a guest column on the club's website. In May 2012, he was almost arrested in Dulles Airport, Washington, after celebrating a goal in a match he was watching on his laptop rather too enthusiastically.

Viggo's other expressions of support are a little less controversial. He recently put his name to a UK flower seed company's product after they agreed to release packets of petunia seeds coloured in the club's blue and red for charity (don't go away, I'm not making this up), and if you're a film award ceremony watcher, just pay attention to small details like the colours of his tie next time you notice him at one.

Of course, vitally important through all of this is that San Lorenzo aren't the only football team hoping to benefit from the preferences of the new Pope. Because seemingly every Argentine football fan has, over the last few days, been eager to point out that the country's footballing trilogy is now complete; Diego Maradona has long been referred to as 'God', and Lionel Messi as his heir, or 'the son', an analogy helped by the fact that the Spanish word for 'Messiah' ('Mesías') is so similar to his surname. They've now got a Pope to put alongside those two.

Argentines, even at the best of times, don't need much of an excuse to blow their national team's trumpet and insist that any number of factors mean they're destined to win the next World Cup. I was told by one fan before the last World Cup that the fact that it was 2010 - a year ending in Diego Maradona's shirt number, with him as manager - meant the trophy would be theirs in South Africa. What makes this latest theory even more beautiful is that one of the other candidates for the Papacy was Brazilian. And where's next year's World Cup being held? Brazil! When they put it like that, it really does start to look somewhat inevitable, doesn't it?

The fact that no sitting Pope has seen his country win the World Cup since the second World War has either passed these people by, or is being ignored. But let's not let that get in the way of a nice prediction. And if you ever wish you were living in South America and writing about football for a living, just bear in mind I'm going to have to put up with these kind of predictions and jokes on an almost daily basis between now and Brazil 2014.

As the incoming Pope has some of his personal effects, including items of San Lorenzo memorabilia, shipped over to his new home in the Vatican, the club have also sent him a letter expressing their pride and congratulating him. They've also had a special one-off shirt made for this Saturday's match against Colón de Santa Fe, with a halo over the club badge - a motif that's been used before, in 2000-01, when they won their last domestic title.

It's unlikely that any good results for the rest of San Lorenzo's season will be directly influenced by the Almighty - who's surely got more important things to worry about - but highly probable, of course, that the press at least will be referring to miracles with every late winner and moments of divine inspiration when a forward pulls off something outrageous.

As for those who prefer to look for Francis I's influence on the national team, they'll get their first chance to see whether Argentina can break that poor run of the Papacy in international competition on Friday night, when Lionel Messi and company play Venezuela in the World Cup qualifying campaign. The visitors will be hoping it's only the eleven opposing players they're up against.

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