An illustration of Pope Francis
© Luis Grañena

For a nine-year-old boy in lower-middle-class Buenos Aires in 1946, there were three towering influences: the Catholic church, Argentina’s new president, Juan Domingo Perón, and football.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio absorbed them all. He used to go with his father, an immigrant Italian railway worker, to watch the San Lorenzo team. In that magical year of ’46, San Lorenzo became Argentine champions. Bergoglio – now Pope Francis – likes to say that a crucial San Lorenzo goal that season “just about deserved a Nobel Prize”.

On Sunday night, the Pope will surely be glued to the telly in his humble apartment, cheering on Argentina in the World Cup against Bosnia. Francis is usually explained through his Jesuit background. But the world’s most popular leader can also be understood as a typically Argentine Peronist politician. (I owe this insight to David Sheinin, historian at Trent University in Canada.) Francis is a brilliant populist communicator like Perón. And football is central to his communication.

“Argentine Miracle: A Peronist on St Peter’s Throne,” is how the Argentine newspaper Clarín greeted his election. Clarín was exaggerating. However, says Jimmy Burns, a former FT correspondent in Buenos Aires who is writing Francis’s biography, “There’s no doubt he was a Peronist, in the sense that most of the country, the lower-middle-class down, was.”

Perón’s political base was the poor, “the shirtless ones”. The strongman dominated Argentine politics until 1955, initially with his wife Evita. After her early death and Perón’s exile, Bergoglio joined the Jesuits. Burns says: “It’s his way of getting out of a politics he can’t understand.” Today, Francis’s message as Pope resembles Perón’s as president: he feels as one with the poor but doesn’t seek specific economic reforms for them, explains Sheinin.

Previous popes have struggled to communicate solidarity with the shirtless ones. When the Argentine footballer Diego Maradona visited the Vatican, Pope John Paul II told him the Church “was concerned about poor children”. But Maradona, marvelling at the Vatican’s gold ceilings, thought, “Sell the ceiling, dude. Do something!” He wanted a grand Peronist gesture.

That’s what Francis offers. From his first appearance on the Vatican’s balcony in a plain white cassock to say a simple “Good evening” to the world, he has presented himself as “Pope of the people”. By driving a 1984 Renault, and living in room 201 of a Vatican guest house, he communicates simplicity. He hasn’t sold the Vatican ceiling but he auctioned his Harley-Davidson motorbike for the poor. No doubt these gestures are sincere. He envisions “a church for the poor”, and his critique of inequality sounds Pikettyesque.

Yet whatever he says, any virgin bachelor leading 1.2 billion people will struggle to seem a regular guy. Day by day, football helps. San Lorenzo has been central to Bergoglio’s image since he was a cleric in Buenos Aires exchanging football chatter with parishioners in the local dialect of Lunfardo. He still pays his club membership fees online every month.

San Lorenzo suits him, notes Burns: a neighbourhood club, founded by a priest, which isn’t quite big enough to irritate fans of other Argentine clubs. That’s why in the 1940s, just as the child Bergoglio was becoming a San Lorenzo fan, the writer Jorge Luis Borges became a fake one. Borges was then a librarian in Buenos Aires. His underworked colleagues talked football for six hours a day. When Borges admitted ignorance about the game, they advised him to say he supported the club near the library, San Lorenzo de Almagro. Borges later recalled, “I learnt that by heart and always said I supported San Lorenzo …But I noticed that San Lorenzo de Almagro almost never won.” Indeed, that was part of their charm: they were a regular-guy club.

Yet months after Francis became Pope, San Lorenzo became Argentine champions again – a fact that may come in useful when the Church searches for miracles to clinch his sainthood. San Lorenzo visited St Peter’s and gave him the glove with which its keeper had made the crucial last-minute save.

Francis “is” San Lorenzo, but he is too clever to support Argentina in public. Perhaps in the privacy of his room on Sunday, he’ll don the team shirt that Argentina’s players gave him last year. He can presumably identify with a group of ordinary Argentine boys now mostly pursuing their careers in their ancestral Mediterranean homelands. But as Burns notes, Francis cannot be “Pope of the Argentines”. He has his whole flock to think about. The World Cup is a peculiarly Catholic affair: majority Catholic countries have won 15 of the 19 tournaments. With former West Germany split about 50:50 between Protestants and Catholics, the only undeniably non-Catholic world champion was England in 1966. (No doubt theologians can explain this.)

The world’s largest Catholic country isn’t going to let Argentines get uppity. Brazilian vendors are selling T-shirts that say: “You already have the Pope and Messi – Brazil World Champions 2014.”; Twitter @KuperSimon

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