Football and faith: Deogratias, striker and future priest

Rome (AFP) –


Deogratias Nyamwihula is a 27-year-old Tanzanian striker whose quickness is a thorn in the side of defences.

He has lived in Rome since 2015, but far from the glamour of Roma and Lazio, he plays for Sedes Sapientiae, a cosmopolitan team of seminary students that are among the most feared in the Clericus Cup.

Organised every year in Rome on the grounds of the Pius XI stadium, which boasts one of the most beautiful views of the capital over the Dome of St. Peter's Basilica, the Clericus Cup is the World Cup of priests and seminarians.

In April, the Sedes Sapientiae, a seminary in the Roman neighbourhood of Trastevere and run by Opus Dei, defeated Amici della Chape, another team of aspiring priests, to reach its third semi-final in four years.

Wearing the number 10 jersey, Deogratias was involved in most of the key action, winning a penalty kick, and scoring to make it 3-1. At the final whistle, he ran bare-chested to celebrate with dozens of fans who beat drums and sang "Forza, Forza Sedes!" throughout the match.

"I always played football in my country, without shoes, on very hard ground. I had so many friends thanks to football, a match is like calling a friend to come to eat," the Barcelona and Brazil fan, who is in his third year studying theology, told AFP.

In a black shirt and Roman collar, sweating under the spring sun, Sedes coach Jose Huerta, a Mexican priest, shouted instructions in Italian and congratulations to players from Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, the Philippines, Ghana, South Africa and Croatia.

"Football is something that unites us, beyond the prayers and other things that we enjoy doing together, but football is really an entertaining activity that does a lot of good for the community," he said.

- Suspect technique, clear intent -

At the Clericus Cup, the technique is sometimes debatable and the physical condition often suspect.

But the focus is clear and even though a Brazilian midfielder from "Chape" handed out a few knocks, everything ended with all the players embracing in a circle in the centre of the field.

"We give everything, but always with a spirit that is, let's say, Christian. We don't forget that we are priests, seminarians, religious, in a word," explained Huerta.

In the austere yet well-lit room he shares with two other students at the seminary, Deogratias -- whose name means "Thanks be to God" -- recalls his childhood "in a very Christian family". His little brother was baptised Melchior, after one of the three wise men.

"Growing up, it became like a love story and I had this vocation to be a priest. At 17, I wanted to make this journey to understand what God wanted for my life," he explains.

"But our training is not just about prayer, it's a human, intellectual education, and part of that human education is, of course, the game.

"Some play volleyball and basketball. That is how we can have a little fun at the weekends, relax, and return in top form on Monday."

In the corridors decorated with old maps of the seminary, Deogratias was asked about the concept of victory and its compatibility with Christian virtues.

"The question is not to win but to create friendships, and if we are all here it is for our faith," he said.

Nevertheless he has no hesitation in recalling the date of the Clericus Cup final.

"May 26, like the Champions League final!"