Rome's temple of football plays host to His Holiness

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The Independent Online

A frail Pope John Paul II showed a glimpse of his former athletic self yesterday as he sat alertly through his first ever full game of football at the Olympic Stadium in Rome.

A frail Pope John Paul II showed a glimpse of his former athletic self yesterday as he sat alertly through his first ever full game of football at the Olympic Stadium in Rome.

After saying mass for a crowd of 60,000 to celebrate the Jubilee of Sportsmen, the Pope insisted on staying to the final whistle of the match played in his honour. The game, between the national side and an All Stars selection of foreigners playing in the Italian league ended, fittingly, in a draw.

The man known as "God's Athlete" was welcomed with huge cheers as he entered the stadium in a black convertible that did a lap of the track. In choreography worthy of an Olympic event, brightly clad youngsters danced the form of the Holy Year 2000 symbol, two torches were lit and a white dove released for the occasion conveniently made its home on the immense altar created in the grandstand.

Players with six-figure salaries found themselves in the unusual role of awkward spectators during the mass and the packed stadium roared with applause as the Pope recalled that he had been an active sportsmen, saying sport must be "an instrument for peace between peoples".

"Sport today is extremely important because it can help encourage fundamental values among young people," he said with a slurred voice. "So sportsmen have a great responsibility: they must make of sport an occasion for meeting and dialogue, beyond any barriers of language, race and culture."

Seeing the cream of one of the world's best football championships playing in his honour will have brought back fond memories for the ageing Pope. As a youngster in his native Krakow he was a keen footballer. His schoolfriend, Jerry Kruger, recalls that the young Karol Wotyla was a crack goalkeeper.

The crowd at Rome's temple of sport was lively and enthusiastic; one television reporter said it had been "transformed into a cathedral". Gone were the smoke bombs, the racist banners, the insults and the violence that often characterise Sundays at the stadium.

The match between the national team and the All Starscould have been subtitled Catholics vs Other Religions. With the exception of the ponytailed Buddhist Roberto Baggio, the Italian side was all Catholic, while the All Stars included Protestants, Lutherans, Moslems and Evangelists.

After the match the players filed past the Pope, kissing his hand while receiving a medal. The goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon gave the Pope his gloves. Italy's coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, presented him with a blue shirt of the national side.

A veteran Vatican-watcher has unearthed evidence that Pope John Paul II is not the first pontiff to have watched a football game in public. Sixtus IV, who ruled from 1471-1488, apparently took an intermittent interest in a heated match of Florentine football being played beneath his balcony.

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