The women huddled in the center of the pitch, to briefly strategise, to pray for Ukraine. Then the whistle blew, and to cries of “Forza, sisters!” from their fans, they prepared for kick-off.
The youngest player is 27, the eldest 52, and they are among the 18 brought together from congregations across Italy to form the first national football team for nuns in the world.
“I’ve always been passionate about football,” said Sister Livia Angelillis, who scored a goal during the match against Le Camille, a team of former Serie A women’s league players, in Milan. “Maybe I was born with a ball in my hands.”
On more than one occasion, Pope Francis has told nuns not to become “old maids” and to get out more. The sisters took heed of the pontiff’s words, as did Moreno Buccianti, a former amateur footballer and founder of the national team for priests, who said Francis motivated him to fulfill his long-held ambition of establishing a side for nuns, too.
The plan was given further impetus after the Vatican set up its first women’s football team, made up of lay workers within the Holy See, in 2019, and finally the Italy team was officially formed in June last year. The first game was blessed by Sister Paola D’Auria, the squad’s honorary president and a huge Lazio fan who became famous in Italy for her football commentary on TV.
“We have a team for priests, so it was only right that there should be one for nuns,” said Buccianti. “The pope’s message was really important, and through football the nuns evangelise – the main aim is to attract young people back to the church.”
The players are a mix of nationalities, including Romanian, Mexican and Malagasy, and most played football before becoming nuns. Sister Annika Fabbian, a striker, played for Vicenza’s female youth team. She also teaches art history, and whenever she can she has a kick-around in the school’s courtyard with her students.
“My mother wasn’t so happy when I dropped dance classes for football,” Annika, 32, said. “She used to tell me to leave all my gear outside as it was full of mud. But after a while she got used to it.”
Sister Emilia Jitaru, 52, was somewhat of a football star in her home country of Romania, playing for a top league team and selected to join the women’s national team. But she abandoned the football career, and her fiance de ella, after receiving the “sudden calling” to become a nun.
“Joining the nunhood came via football,” she said. “In 1992 I was preparing to play in a match and a priest said, ‘Come to mass, it will bring you a lot of fortune.’ I told him I don’t believe in God. The next day, a voice inside me told me to go to the mass, and when I met the sisters and did the sign of peace with one, something changed – I had never felt such joy before, not even when I scored a goal. ”
When Buccianti first started talking about forming a team for nuns, some laughed the venture off. “At the same time there was a curiosity to see nuns playing football, and for the most part the team has been completely supported and appreciated,” he said.
The women need permission from the mother superior of their congregation to participate, the majority of whom have granted it, although some of their fellow sisters have sneered.
“Some still consider it to be a masculine sport that shouldn’t be played by women,” said Sister Annika. “Now after the success of the Italian national team in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the mentality has changed a bit. But who cares about the critics? We’re doing this for young people.”
The nuns make time for training and playing football wherever they can in their busy schedule. They have played four matches since the team was formed, winning a debut fundraiser in November to mark the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. They lost 4-1 to Le Camille , but viewed the friendly more as a way to prepare for their next match in Assisi in May against their main rival – the Vatican.
“It is a big commitment,” said Sister Livia, who is a big fan of Inter Milan. “But we are fortunate in that we can unite our passion for football while evangelising.”
Buccianti has had requests from other nuns keen to join the squad, and hopes to inspire the formation of national sides’ for nuns beyond Italy.
The sisters say the best thing about the team is that it brings them all together, to collaborate and support each other while having fun.
“Playing with a ball is easy, but creating a team is a lot of hard work, but we managed it,” said Sister Emilia.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism