.- In an address at a gathering of 6,000 young Italian soccer fans Friday, Pope Francis encouraged the sports enthusiasts to play sports in order to build friendships and teamwork, as an alternative to surface-level friendships made through technology.
“Sport is a great opportunity to learn to give the best of yourself, with sacrifice and commitment, but above all, not alone,” the Pope said May 24. “Listen carefully: sport, not alone.”
The event, entitled “The Football We Love,” was sponsored by local sports newspaper “La Gazzetta dello Sport” in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, University and Research, the Italian Football Federation, and the Serie A League.
“We live in a time when, thanks to the massive presence of new technologies, it is easy to isolate oneself, to create virtual bonds with many people, but at a distance,” the Holy Father told the children.
“The great thing about playing with a ball is being able to do it together with others, passing it in the middle of a field, learning to build the action of a game, joining together as a team…The ball becomes a means of inviting real people to share friendship,” he said.
“Dear friends: football is a team game: you can’t enjoy it alone!” he added.
European football, called soccer in the United States, is the most popular sport in Italy. The nation’s professional team has won the FIFA World Cup four times.
After addressing the children, Pope Francis also spoke to their parents. He encouraged them to help make sports a growing and learning opportunity for their children, who should be encouraged to do their best rather than to always win, he said.
He told parents to encourage their children “in difficult times, especially after a defeat … And to help them understand that being on the bench is not a humiliation, but an opportunity to grow and an opportunity for another person.”
To the coaches and professional athletes present, Pope Francis reminded them to serve as good role models for the young athletes that look up to them.
“Everything you say and do, and the way in which you say and do it, is a lesson for your athletes, and as such will leave an indelible mark on their life, for better or for worse”, the Pope told coaches.
To the professional athletes, he said: “Do not forget where you started from: in that field in the outskirts of town, in that oratory, in that small club…I hope you will always feel gratitude for your history made up of sacrifices, victories and defeats. And may you also be aware of your educational responsibility, shown through consistency in life and solidarity with the weakest, encouraging the youngest to become great inside and maybe even champions in life.”
Pope Francis is a well-known football fan himself. His favorite team is San Lorenzo de Almagro, one of the most important teams in Argentina, and the Pope still keeps his associate membership card for the team.
He also played soccer as a child, but he has said in interviews that he was only a “patadura” – someone not very good at kicking the ball.
When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he celebrated Mass for the 100th anniversary of the San Lorenzo de Almagro sports club in 2008.