When white smoke emerges from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, it tells the world, and followers of the Roman Catholic faith at large, that the latest in a historic line of pontiffs, has been chosen by the Papal Conclave; the highest court of the Catholic Church in the Roman enclave of The Vatican City.
When smoke emerges from the stands of footballing grounds in Buenos Aires be it the Estadio Pedro Bidegain or the legendary La Bombonera of Boca Juniors, It is usually a sign of equally good news.
It might not be a new pontiff, but with each football rasped into the back of the net, another legend builds within a different faith. In Buenos Aires, you stand a chance of being tied between two creeds.
The archaic, staunt creed and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church, and the burning, rabid passion of football. The city is one of the beating hearts of Latin America, but also Argentina at large. It is said that the streets of Buenos Aires are alive.
This is certainly defined by the roles that the city has within footballing culture in Argentina and faith in the country. The seat of the church in Argentina is within Buenos Aires, and it also holds a large faith school in the form of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina.
Buenos Aires is also the thriving hub of footballing culture in the country, with the Cinco Grandes originating in the city and its greater metropolitan area, attracting fiery support not just from the neighbourhoods of the city, but from the world at large.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in 1936, in the Flores Barrio right in the middle of Buenos Aires. It's also the neighbourhood where Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro or CALSA, draws the majority of its support.
With four other clubs fighting for dominance in Buenos Aires, and Argentina, each new supporter indoctrinated in the history of each club - and it's colours – can be considered a net win, less they join the ranks of Boca Juniors or River Plate. Bergoglio grew up screaming the name of Ciclón from the stands of the Estadio Gasómetro, and while his future would become defined by his faith, it would be the past of San Lorenzo that would be rooted in Catholicism. Both origin and destiny of a man and his club were tied to faith.
Lorenzo Bartolomé Massa was another son of Buenos Aires. Born to Italian immigrants in the Partido de Morón in the late 19th century, Lorenzo would be yet another child of a heavily religious family to dedicate his life to his beliefs – and serve the Catholic Church. The turn of the century found Massa working in Uribelarrea, before moving onto teach Theology. Massa would truly find his calling at the Oratorio San Antonio, where he became a manager and oversaw the day-to-day of the institution on México Street.
While his life's work had led up to his role at the Oratorio San Antonio, his impact would be felt by chance, of all things. Street football was a way of life for many in Buenos Aires – not least the kids who down their schoolbooks to take to the roads and avenues of the city.
On the corner of México street, before the Oratorio, Lorenzo Massa took an interest in these children and their activity - and started to take his work outside to take in the sport of football in its most purest form - 22 a side on the street, stones for goalposts. They called themselves ‘The Strongmen of Almagro’ - as children are wont to do to mirror their heroes and stronger elders, but also to possibly impress others.
On one of these days when he was seated outside, Lorenzo noticed a speeding tram split the pitch as it coursed around the city, almost taking a young boy's life. In an act of remarkable kindness, ignited within the priest by his horror at the incident, offered up the church's garden as a new pitch. However, there was one condition.
Each of the boys playing football on México Street would have to join Massa in a Catholic Mass each and every Sunday if they wished to play in the yard of the Oratorio San Antonio.
Father Massa's interest in the boys and their sport lived long beyond his offer. Just months later he attended an assembly to formalize The Strongmen of Almagro as Los Forzosos de Almagro - a football club to compete against others. Massa disliked the name, so the boys; now the players - suggested 'San Lorenzo' in an homage to the man who gave a platform for their pastime. Massa, true to his role as a priest, refused this form of idolization.
Massa eventually capitulated, but not without his humbleness getting in the way. He had relented after allowing the club to be named after Lawrence of Rome, but also the battle of San Lorenzo - a fight for the nation and a battle that defined the Independence of Argentina. A final tweak by a founding player - Federico Monti – was to merge The Strongmen with San Lorenzo by adding the name of the Almagro neighbourhood to the title.
San Lorenzo de Almagro stuck. Within ten years, on the eve of the First World War, a club of Catholics and streetballers had found its way into the Argentine Primera Division, and eventually would be woven, amongst others, into the rich tapestry of football in Buenos Aires.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio had served God all his life, and was a clear choice to become the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. A son of the city, and a strict - but modern - devotee to Catholicism. Jorge rode the bus to work every day, and didn't let the prestige of his role as the Archbishop change this. One topic would grace his conversations though and that would be the performances of San Lorenzo.
If they had won, he would celebrate on his bus ride - but if they had lost, he would be merciful in his analytical rundowns of the loss; for if he had been taught one thing above all by his religion, it was that there was no greater power than the power of mercy.
Bergoglio had chained himself to his God, but also to his football club. In his eyes, the Lord and San Lorenzo were almost on the same pedestal. Almost. He had spent most of his childhood in the churches and community of Buenos Aires at large, but he could be found alongside his father at the Estadio Gasómetro - roaring San Lorenzo on.
When Bergoglio ascended to the Papacy after white smoke erupted from the Sistine Chapel, he still paid his membership fee towards San Lorenzo - and he still watched the games. Even after he dedicated his papacy to Saint Francis of Assisi, naming himself Pope Francisco - San Lorenzo still held a big place in Bergoglio's heart, even if he had to represent the world; rather than his small corner of Argentina. San Lorenzo didn’t ignore this, and even wore badges in Pope Francisco’s honour.
No matter if Pope, Priest or Altar boy - these stories are ten a penny in Argentina. You go to Mass, you play football, you eat, you sleep, you pray, you watch football and you do it all over again; but as the world modernises and places religion onto a backstep, while culture marches forward - we can still see new saints canonised through their actions. Maradona, Batistuta, Di Stefano and Messi among others are worshipped as much as those who spread the word of God.
There are plenty of creeds and systems of belief that we can tie our flag to in this day and age, but it’s very rare that you’ll find two faiths mix and breed. The Sectarian nature of religion and its often complex systems mean that a faith is very much a single child, without siblings. However, the marriage of Catholicism and Football is something to behold - as two faiths, one religious & one very much religious mix proving grounds and thrive, finding common ground between the two. Argentine passion burns brightly, but especially so when it comes to futbol and the word of God.
By James Rushton. Header image credit goes fully to José María Pérez Nuñez.