By Chistopher Wells
Pope Francis on Friday held an audience for more than five thousand young football players, along with professional football stars, coaches, educators, and experts, including the heads of several Italian sports institutions. The group was taking part in a special encounter organized for the young people, entitled “The football that we love,” which focused on the idea of football as fun, educational, and inclusive.
Those were themes picked up by Pope Francis in his address. The Holy Father quoted a saying of St John Bosco, who said that the easiest way to draw young people was to “throw a ball in the air.” “Behind a rolling ball,” the Pope said, “there is almost always a child with their dreams and aspirations.”
Pope Francis said, “the great thing about playing with a ball is that you can do it together with others.” “Football is a team sport,” he said. “You can’t have fun alone.”
In off-the-cuff comments, he confided that for him football is the best is “the best game in the world” and he urged them to keep it so.
While lamenting the excessive competitiveness that sometimes mars youth sports, the Pope encouraged parents and coaches to remember – and to teach their children – that football “is a game, and must remain so!” Sport is an activity for one’s free time, chosen precisely because it is fun. It offers children a chance to chase a dream, even if they don’t end up becoming champions. Pope Francis emphasised the important role of coaches and mentors, who are role models for their athletes, whose example will leave an “indelible mark” in their lives, for good or ill.
“Someone once said that he walked on tiptoe on the field so as not to trample on the sacred dreams of children,” the Pope said. He asked parents and coaches “not to turn the dreams of your children into easy illusions destined to clash early on with the limits of reality; not to oppress their lives with forms of blackmail that limit their freedom and imagination; not to teach shortcuts that only lead to getting lost in the labyrinth of life.” Rather, he said, “may you always be partners in the smiles of your athletes.”