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.