Dispatch

The Beatified Game

How the new pope has blessed the long suffering soccer fans of Argentina’s Club Atlético San Lorenzo.

BUENOS AIRES — In Argentina, the home of the newly elected Catholic Pope, Francis I, soccer is a religion in and of itself. On Sundays, often instead of attending mass, Argentines dutifully flock to the stadiums of their preferred teams where they take a communion of sausage sandwiches and Coca Cola; traditional club chants take the place of hymns.

Sometimes, the two religions mix. Argentine soccer deity Diego Maradona attributed his infamous 1986 World Cup goal to "the hand of god" (really it was a handball mistaken for a header), which he claims is now responsible for bringing Argentina an Argentine pope.

Perhaps Maradona would be less effusive if he knew that Francis I is actually a die-hard supporter of San Lorenzo, a rival of the teams where the soccer star launched his professional career, the Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors.  

Loyalty to San Lorenzo was instilled in Francis I, then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, when he was just a wee pope-to-be. He would accompany his father to play basketball at the club, which was then located close to their home in a middle class neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Bergoglio quickly fell in love. In 1946, when he was 10, Bergoglio attended every single game of the soccer club's season, which resulted in a division championship.    

He has since suffered with the club through its tumultuous history. In 1979, during Argentina's heinous military dictatorship, financial problems and municipal pressure forced San Lorenzo to sell off its original stadium, the Estadio Gasómetro, to the government for the measly sum of $900,000. Three years later, the government made a $2,100,000 profit by flipping the plot to French supermarket chain Carrefour, which even today hawks groceries from the land in Buenos Aires's Boedo neighborhood where San Lorenzo's players once practiced their passing and Francis I's father used to take jump shots.

For over 14 years, San Lorenzo went without a permanent stadium, forced to wander Buenos Aires, degrading themselves by renting fields from rival clubs. Finally, in 1993, the club developed the "Nuevo Gasómetro," which was a step up from its nomadic era, but perhaps not by much. The stadium seated 30,000 fewer fans than the club's original grounds and though only about a mile and half southwest, the location was a far cry from the original Gasómetro's Boedo, a tree-lined neighborhood full of bustling cafes and steakhouses. Instead, the Nuevo Gasómetro abuts Villa 1-11-14, one of the city's most dangerous slums -- known for its high crime level and worrisome consumption of a crack-like substance called paco.

Thanks to a 2006 law, which allowed lands deemed to have been taken illegally during the dictatorship to be returned to their original owners, the club's zealous fans have launched various legal projects to recuperate the grounds of their original stadium. After many years of aggressive legal jockeying, and huge protests -- that in one recent case saw more than 100,000 fans turn out -- San Lorenzo's supporters received a major coup last November when Buenos Aires's legislature decided unanimously in favor of returning the club's stadium to Boedo. The legislature covertly decided to vote a week earlier than planned to avoid a rush of elated San Lorenzo fans, but news of the vote quickly spread and the "cuervos," or crows, as they call themselves, spilled out into the streets to celebrate.  

But further challenges lie ahead. Now the team must reach a settlement with Carrefour, as well as gather $18.8 million to pay the supermarket chain as compensation. Though on its own the club's wallet is thin, it claims to have already amassed over half of this sum by appealing to loyal fan base which -- in addition to Francis I (whose donation history is unknown or nonexistent) -- includes Viggo Mortensen, the Lord of the Rings heartthrob who spent part of his childhood in Buenos Aires and donated money to build the club's chapel in 2010.

After the settlement lurks the more formidable challenge of building a new stadium, a task that promises to be far more expensive. San Lorenzo has already begun rolling out plans for the building, which would be eco-friendly and hold 40,000 fans. 

While Francis I has never publically spoken about the club's battle to reclaim its original land, San Lorenzo's homecoming would undoubtedly have sentimental value for the pope, who hasn't attended a live game since he assumed his duties as a priest in 1969, during the era of the original Estadio Gasómetro.

"The dream of every San Lorenzo fan is to return to our holy land, and now, with a San Lorenzo fan as the pope, we are closer than ever" says Diego Filmus, 33. Luciano Garcia, another San Lorenzo devotee from a neighborhood close to the old stadium, explains: "It would allow us to fully reclaim our identity and culture."

Even as his crows played in their new, unfamiliar stadium, Bergoglio's support for San Lorenzo never waned. He has stayed involved with the club as he climbed the church hierarchy, leading the club's centenary in 2008 and often trekking from his cathedral to the stadium to officiate religious ceremonies in the club's chapel. In 2011, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio took a public bus to the stadium to confirm two young players who now play professionally for San Lorenzo, remarking "I feel enormously happy about celebrating mass while seeing the stadium of San Lorenzo through the window." Having become a card carrying member of the club in 2008, Bergoglio has often been photographed holding a San Lorenzo jersey and, in his office as cardinal, supposedly hung a photo of San Lorenzo's first team alongside more conventional religious imagery.

A zealous champion for the poor, Francis I has also volunteered time in the new stadium's neighboring Villa 1-11-14. Most notably, as part of last year's Easter ceremonies, he travelled to the slum to wash the feet of 12 recovering paco addicts, a reference to Jesus's gesture to his disciples at the last supper meant to symbolize humility and service.

While the chants sung and brawls that occur hyper-frequently at San Lorenzo games seem hardly saintly, the club actually has roots in the Church, making it a fitting choice for a religious leader. The club is named for priest Lorenzo Massa, who, in 1908, convinced a group of boys who would play soccer amid traffic near his church to start attending mass on Sundays -- in exchange for use of the church's backyard.

Like most Argentine soccer fans, Francis I's allegiance derives more from family ties than ideology. Whatever his reasons for supporting the club, fellow San Lorenzo fanatics are thrilled that he does. In a letter to Pope Francis I after his election, San Lorenzo's president and vice president, Marcelo Tinelli, a famous Argentine television personality, wrote cheerfully: "Know that for us you are not just another Pope, nor the first ‘Argentine pope' or Latin American or the first Jesuit pope, you are ‘the Pope of San Lorenzo,' or in soccer-speak, our first ‘Crow Pope.'"

AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Xi Pivots to Moscow

What message is China's new leader sending with his first overseas trip?

BEIJING — In January 1979, shortly after he rose to power as paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping visited the United States. While there, he defined the direction he would take the country, donning a cowboy hat and symbolically steering away from the Soviet Union-which he never visited as China's ruler-and toward the markets of the West.

But Xi Jinping, who completed his formal leadership ascension by being crowned president on Thursday (he was appointed chairman of the Communist Party and head of the military in November), is heading first to Moscow.

Will Xi's late March trip to Vladimir Putin's Russia -- a bastion of authoritarian state capitalism -- symbolically define China's path ahead, like Deng's U.S. tour?

It's too early to say, but he's certainly taking care to make it a success.

Xi has been brushing up on his rudimentary Russian, which he learned at Beijing's most exclusive school, No. 101, when it was reserved for the children of high ranking leaders. He has even been rehearsing Russian poetry to impress his hosts, according to one of his close associates.

And he has sought the assistance of his female friend Li Xiaolin, a princeling -- the term used for the children of high-ranking officials -- who heads a ministry-level back-channel diplomatic organization called the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, according to the close associate. Li's father, Li Xiannian, worked closely with Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, when both men were vice premiers in the 1950s. Li's husband Gen. Liu Yazhou is an important confidante of Xi's.

One of Li's aides has been seconded to the economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, from where she had been shuttling between Beijing and Moscow to prepare a huge new oil and gas supply deal to sweeten Xi's arrival.

Whether Russia can open an energy artery to China will depend, essentially, on price. For years, the two countries have been negotiating deals that would double China's imports of Russian oil, making it less dependent on the Persian Gulf and East Africa. The two countries are also planning a huge new joint investment fund, with Li's aide penciled in to be vice chair, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Whether or not the deals come through, Xi's use of Li shows how networks of the red aristocracy enable him to work around the Communist Party's sometimes sclerotic bureaucracy.

There are some close observers who believe, or hope, that Xi's Moscow tour is designed to draw upon symbolism from the revolutionary era when his father was vice premier and China's policy was "to lean to one side" in favor of the Soviet Union.

"Xi will shortly execute China's own pivot," says one well connected observer who has a seat in one of the two legislatures that are meeting in Beijing this week.

The observer says Beijing's move toward Moscow is a response to Washington's "military" pivot, just like when "the Western powers totally ostracized" China in the 1950s.

But the historical parallels are not so clear cut. Unlike the Soviet Union of the 1950s, China runs a successful, market-oriented economy, integrating into the global financial system and heavily dependent on exports to the West.

The economic reforms that Deng is credited with launching in December 1978 propelled China away from Soviet-style autarky into connected capitalism. But Deng was not the architect of reforms as much as an important part of an elite consensus. One of the most important members was Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun.

While Xi Zhongxun and Li Xiannian both served then Chairman Mao Zedong in the 1950s, they left their marks following Mao's death in 1976.

Xi Jinping will remember Li Xiannian from when the revolutionary leader kindly brought him in for a home-cooked meal in the early days of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, when Xi's family was in disgrace. He is also likely grateful for how Li signed off on his father's rehabilitation in August 1977.

And around the time when Deng was photographed waving a 10-gallon hat at a rodeo in Texas, it was Li Xiannian who endorsed Xi Zhongxun's most radical project, according to Warren Sun, a historian of modern Chinese history at Monash University in Australia. Li endorsed Xi's radical idea of a free trade zone and allocated him the piece of land that has now expanded into the bustling export city of Shenzhen.

Since then, the Chinese economy has grown at an average of nearly 10 percent a year, and its GDP has risen from just over $175 billion to $7.3 trillion. But unlike 1979, when China was exuding optimism and the Communist Party was rallying around the promise of reform, there is a pervasive sense of fear and foreboding that the power and corruption of the party-state could derail efforts at reform.

China is once again at a "crossroads," to use a word in vogue among the Beijing intelligentsia. Conservatives hope Xi will move to the conservative left, as symbolized by Putin's Russia. But if Xi Jinping is truly his father's son, he will use the Moscow visit to shore up his left flank while quietly re-starting Deng's journey of opening and reform.

Ed Jones/AFP/GettyImages