By Sarah Delaney
Catholic News Service
ROME — Dreams of glory for the Pontifical North American College soccer team were vanquished with a single corner kick to their goal in the final duel for the Clericus Cup tournament trophy.
The NAC Martyrs, the team fielded by the U.S. bishops’ seminary in Rome, finished the season with a respectable second place after going undefeated into the final match May 23 against a team from the Neocatechumenal Way’s Redemptoris Mater seminary.
The loss did not discourage the North American College rector, Msgr. James F. Checchio, a priest of the Diocese of Camden. “They’re winners,” he said after the game. “They’re great men; they played hard and they keep improving.”
The important thing, he said, “is that they are coming together in unity and a spirit of cooperation, with brothers from other countries.”
The Clericus Cup tournament for priests and seminarians studying in Rome was established in 2006 and first played in 2007; it now involves 386 seminarians and religious from 69 countries.
Martyrs’ coach and goalie Gannon Jones said the loss was disappointing, “but I’m definitely pleased at our playing this year. This is the only game we lost, and only by one point. Our defense was very good.”
The key is “to put your good sportsmanship to Christ,” he said, because “winning is everything only if you win God.”
Despite the heat and the high stakes for the title of champions, tempers appeared to be kept under control. A jab here and kick there, or a foul, didn’t set off the players as they might in match in a conventional league.
The blue “sin” card, an innovation of Clericus Cup play that signifies a timeout for “reflection” for any player who gets a little overheated, was not employed during the final match.
Hundreds of fans from both seminaries took shelter from the blazing sun under the covered stands on a hilltop soccer field that gave a unique, level view of the dome of the nearby St. Peter’s Basilica.
To inaugurate the game, “Red Mat” players and supporters sang “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” while Martyrs’ fans sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” accompanied by a trumpeter.
Msgr. Checchio estimated that about half of the 208 seminarians at the North American College had come out to cheer on their red and blue team. An extremely enthusiastic fan club, they stamped their feet, pounded the roof, shouted “NAC, NAC, NAC …” to the tune of “Barbara Ann” and “Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” or admonished the referee with taunting chants.
Three fans in full Captain America, King Kong and Elvis garb pranced about at halftime.
Bob Mucci, a fourth-year seminarian from Brooklyn, N.Y., said he followed the team from the beginning of the Clericus Cup and said the North American team members “have only gotten better every year. Next year they’ll have to win.”
The Martyrs had hoped to win the leading scorer title with their Brazilian forward John Kalevski, who went into the game with 11 goals for the season. But he didn’t get the chance to surpass Edouard Sinayobye of the College of St. Paul, who finished the season with 12 goals.
Kalevski, who is studying for the Basilian order, wanted to play soccer, and because his house did not field a team he joined the Martyrs.
Center back Victor Ingalls, a first-year student from Montgomery, Ala., said after the game that not winning the cup “is a disappointment, but it’s a joy to be able to be in Rome and have all teams with the same goal — the joy in Christ.”
Winning is not the point, he said. “We’re all here to glorify the Lord.” Games are friendly, he said, because many of the men are friends. “I know a lot of the players on Red Mat because we were at the Gregorian (a pontifical university) together.”
Claudio Starile, one of the referees for the Catholic sporting association that organizes the Clericus Cup, said that officiating at one of this league’s games is “like being on holiday” compared to a conventional match. “There is a big difference in behavior,” he said. “Here there is a real desire to play: In other matches there is more of a desire to be aggressive.”
Coach Jones said he got his team out twice a week for practice.
Of course, prayer is part of their game plan.
“We pray before and after a game — to not get injured and to enjoy it,” Jones said. “We pray to express ourselves, using the gifts that God gave us.”