Goalkeeping Pope beats polo-playing prince

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In this week of Pope and prince, it's time to compare them. Prince Charles is widely derided as "out of touch". The Pope, an octogenarian virgin living in a palace, appeared vulnerable to the same charge, yet millions of people felt a personal connection to him.

There are many reasons why the Pope's popularity ratings topped the prince's. The Pope smiled more, avoided cheating on Princess Diana and had a cannier taste in sports. Charles's sons William and Harry - sports nuts themselves - might take him as their role model.

Most stories about the Pope's childhood exist in various versions, but there is no doubt he was a football goalkeeper. He played for his school, and at least once for a local Jewish side. In fact, many of the sporting testimonies about him are from Jews from his village of Wadowice, who knew him as children and survived the Holocaust.

One of them, Yosef Bienenstock, told the New York Times in 2000: "From age zero, we used to play together - marbles and soccer, but the soccer ball was made of rags. In soccer, his ability wasn't the greatest. He always was the goalie and the balls would whistle by him into the net."

"Lolek the Goalie" also swam, played ice hockey and skied. All this shaped his image. Skiing is communing with the landscape and so it seemed to connect him to Poland, just as the football anecdotes connect him to Jews. More significantly, nothing a Pope can do makes him seem more of a regular guy than playing sport.

Being the first Pope of the media age, he publicised his sportsmanship. As pontiff he was forever meeting athletes. After the Irish football team visited him, Jack Charlton, their manager, commented: "He was smaller than I'd expected." Cracovia, the team the Pope supported as a boy, visited the Vatican only this January.

His love of sport spawned legends. In one British story, during a spell at an English seminary he took the train to London on weekends to cheer on Fulham. This never happened. Nor is he ever known to have set chess problems. Those published in the magazine Europe Echecs under the name Karol Wojtyla were forgeries.

Yet he died as a sportsman mourned in the stadiums. Among the most moving images of last weekend was the crowd at a Polish football game chanting "Stop the match!" after news broke - prematurely - of his death. The teams played on unaware, until a brutish-looking spectator walked on to the field and told them the purported news. The players then hugged, prayed, joined the crowd in singing Poland's national anthem and abandoned the match.

Charles inspires less devotion. He is not a regular guy and part of the problem is polo. Not only does he play the world's most exclusive sport, he practically lives it. Polo has shaped his image: an iconic photograph of him, sold in countless souvenir shops, shows him adjusting his genitals beneath his polo kit. Princess Diana even claimed that the induced birth of Prince William was scheduled so as not to clash with Charles's matches. "We found a day that Charles could get off his polo pony for me to give birth. That was very nice," she recorded on tape.

The path to today's wedding began 35 years ago when Charles and Camilla were introduced at a polo match. This is fairly standard: polo is to the royal mating game what the pub "happy hour" is to the mating game of other Brits. In fact, Charles's brother Andrew also met his wife thanks to polo: Sarah Ferguson's father, Ronald, was Charles's polo manager.

All Charles's other sports are elitist too. He loved hunting with dogs, a sport so disliked by most Britons that they supported the recent law banning it. The ban is the Briti sh version of the French revolution, the closest the country will ever get to guillotining its aristocrats. Like the Pope, Charles also skis but frequenting posh Alpine resorts isn't quite communing with the national landscape.

In Charles's defence, he never wanted to engage with the common man. The last prince of the pre-media age, he wasn't brought up to charm subjects. He is slowly learning. When he visited the Channel Islands during the Euro 2004 football tournament, a subject asked him: "Did you watch the football, your royal highness?" Charles, briefed beforehand, was able to come back with something like: "That chap Rooney's done rather well."

His sons have to do better than that. In a written interview just before turning 18, William said: "I enjoy water polo, football and rugby - mostly team sports," and added that he liked "watching football and rugby matches". Somehow he omitted to mention polo. Yet he had intended to spend his year after school playing it in Argentina, a plan vetoed as too decadent by advisers and his father. Harry spent part of his year off volunteering for the Rugby Football Union. (If you are a royal, rugby probably seems plebeian).

Robert Horner, the RFU president, exulted: "It is the first time a member of the royal family has included the RFU in their gap year," an indisputably correct statement.

Give it another generation and 16-year-old royals will be signing apprentice forms at lower-division football clubs where they will clean toilets. The future is with the Pope, not the prince.

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