The first recorded sports match in Vatican history took place on January 7, 1521. With Pope Leo X looking on, two teams clashed in the Cortile del Belvedere in a game known as Calcio Fiorentino, a forerunner of football that looked more like a cross between rugby and boxing. We don’t know what Leo made of it, but we do know that the Vatican didn’t host another major sporting event until 1947, when the state’s lay employees held a football tournament. The matches were reportedly so bad-tempered that the competition was suspended. For the next few decades only friendly matches were permitted.

In 1994 Vatican City made its international footballing debut (a dull goalless draw against fellow microstate San Marino). Since then it has been something of a whipping boy, losing 9-1 to the Palestinian national team and winning just one match. The Vatican cricket team, founded in 2008, has fared slightly better.

But despite dabbling in ball games since the 16th century, the Vatican has never produced a document on sports. Until last week, that is, when the new “super-dicastery” for Laity, the Family and Life issued Giving the Best of Yourself, a 21,000-word reflection on sporting ethics.

Critics of Pope Francis will see the text as further evidence of Vatican trivialisation. But there are compelling reasons for the Church to offer counsel to the sporting world. One is the vast number of people who either watch or take part in sports. An estimated 3.4 billion people – almost half the world’s population – are expected to tune into the World Cup this month in Russia. Some 265 million, meanwhile, regularly play football.

Another reason is that sport offers an ethical training for life. Before his playing career was cut short by TB, the philosopher Albert Camus was the goalie for a junior team in Algiers. “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations,” he wrote, “I owe to football.” The virtues that sport teaches – discipline, selflessness and perseverance – are also the cornerstones of spiritual life.

Yet the sports world is experiencing an ethical malaise. Journalists have exposed astonishing levels of corruption at FIFA, football’s governing body, forced the seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong to admit cheating, and exposed Russia’s state-sponsored doping pro-gramme. Against this background, the Church has a duty to speak out.

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