By David Agren
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The San Lorenzo soccer club stumbled toward the final of its Argentine season in December. It drew its final match, but the other clubs finished in such a way that San Lorenzo won its 12th first-division soccer title.
Some fans found the outcome improbable and credited a figure far from the field: Pope Francis, whose election has coincided with the climbing fortunes of his favorite soccer franchise, Club Atletico San Lorenzo de Almagro.
“It was a miracle from Francisco,” said Juan Carlos Pais, a lifelong fan from suburban Buenos Aires.
San Lorenzo has lived misery and miracles since being founded in 1908, at least according to fans, who speak painfully of losing their stadium in the 1970s during the military dictatorship. The club is one of the five giants of Argentine soccer and has won more titles than most.
But the election of Pope Francis has allowed San Lorenzo to stand out among Argentine teams and move somewhat out of the shadow of the better-known clubs River Plate and Boca Juniors. It now attracts international interest, and fans feel as if the pontiff intervenes on their behalf.
“The fan base believes that Francis brings luck,” said sports writer Pablo Calvo, author of the book, “Dios es Cuervo,” on San Lorenzo and its origins. “They became champions with his arrival.”
The club makes no secret of its unofficial affiliation with Pope Francis — to the point it put the pontiff’s picture on special edition jerseys shortly after his March 13, 2013, election. Putting religious images on jerseys is a no-no, Calvo says, but the club currently has a halo hanging over the logo on its red-and-blue striped kit.
Pope Francis, who used to listen to matches via the radio, has made no secret of his affection for San Lorenzo. He even played basketball with the San Lorenzo team in his youth.
In December, the pope welcomed club directors and players to the Vatican, where they presented him a jersey and brought the championship trophy.
Religion runs through the history of San Lorenzo, even though its fans are from all faiths. The club traces its origins to a parish priest, Father Lorenzo Massa, who provided kids with a place to play soccer. The team is known as “the Crows,” a nickname for priests in Argentina.
Actor Viggo Mortenson, another San Lorenzo fan, funded construction of a chapel, named for Father Massa, near the team’s stadium, the El Nuevo Gasometro.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis celebrated services at the chapel. He also celebrated Mass for the 100th anniversary of San Lorenzo in 2008, after which he bought a membership in the member-owned and operated team.
“It’s an Argentine version of the Green Bay Packers,” says pollster Sergio Berensztein, director of Poliarquia Consultores in Buenos Aires.