· Vatican City ·

The important thing is to have fun

 The important thing is to  have fun  ING-003
19 January 2024

Losing a game 31-0 but still loving football, because even a crushing defeat does not take away the taste for the game. This is what happened to the national football [soccer] team of American Samoa, an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that on 11 April 2001 lost to Australia at the Qualifiers for the 2002 fifa World Cup. It was the largest defeat margin ever recorded in an international match. From this catastrophic outcome comes the story told in the comedy-drama film, Next Goal Wins, currently in cinemas, by New Zealand director Taika Waititi. A professional coach who was let go by the US Federation for his short temper is hired in an effort to turn the American Samoa team around. Thus begins a game within the game, a face-off between two views of football (and by extension, of life): the Western world’s competitive, results-oriented one and that of the Samoan “footballers for fun” who experience football... as a game.

The film, and more so the story that inspires it, emphasises a theme the Pope has touched on many times in his numerous meetings with the world of sport: amateur spirit. In a recent audience with members of the Athletica Vaticana Association on Saturday, 13 January, the Pope stressed that it is the amateur dimension that “safeguards sport”; it “is the lifeblood of sporting activity”. A message he had also shared with the members of the Glasgow Celtic Football Club in 2023 and before that, with the Italian Tennis and Padel Federation. Five years earlier, Pope Francis had dwelt on the value of amateur spirit when he spoke to the students of Rome’s “Pilo Albertelli” High School. Responding to a question on the importance of playing, he stressed that one of the ugliest things happening in the world of football today is that the players have lost the “amateur spirit”, that sport has become too commercial. The Pope said that the amateur spirit in sport is precisely the game which makes you grow.

For the Pope, this dimension of ‘gratuitousness’ in sport should not be lost. It is what makes amateur sport “within everyone’s reach”, it fosters the dimension of fraternity and inclusion, and it contributes to dialogue and peace. As the film highlights, everybody deserves a second chance. It is especially young people who can grow on a personal level, speaking the language “of the mind, of the heart, and of the hands” as the Pope suggested to the youth of Scholas Occurrentes. Of course, Pope Francis is well aware that competitive sport is necessarily driven to transcend limits, and professional athletes are called to surpass their past performances, with commitment and discipline. However, it would be a defeat if this competitive dimension existed at the expense of enjoying the game. We all remember the happiness our favourite athletes would express during their exploits on the field or on the track. Those images stir us even years later. With only a few months to go until the beginning of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris, we can paraphrase Pierre de Coubertin in stating that perhaps the important thing in the end is not to win, or even to participate. The important thing is to have fun. (A. Gisotti)

Alessandro Gisotti