Butting in on Christmas | Zidane, Materazzi herald His coming

Eventually, this presepe (crèche) will include the infant Jesus, who will have plenty of company. The roster of those bearing good tidings includes former FC Napoli star Diego Maradona (lower left), FIFA World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro, Ronaldinho, and other figures, not necessarily to scale. (“At Home in Rome”)

Including figures from the world of football in the holiday-time presepe could not be sacrilegious, as football in Italy certainly takes on characteristics of faith. After all, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, secretary of state for the Holy See, caused a fuss earlier in the month by announcing creation of a new football tournament for candidates for the priesthood, Clericus Cup 2007, and extemporizing that the Vatican had ambitions to challenge in Serie A (see BBC video). He has since retracted the statements about a possible move to professionalism. “I was only joking,” the cardinal said.

As further evidence of the interpenetration of football and faith, author of weblog “At Home in Rome” finds the above tableau on what is known colloquially as “Crib Street,” Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, the main avenue of the Neapolitan crib industry. “[T]he presepe doesn’t necessarily have to have a religious theme,” she writes. “Some presepi can simply represent country scenes or village scenes,” or, as shown, the coiled tension in the head of France midfielder Zinédine Zidane as he bears down on the chest of Marco Materazzi.

The field already is crowded in this scene, awaiting placement of the Christ figure—perhaps as intermediary between the two World Cup antagonists? Jane Ure Smith writes in the Financial Times that presepi at their 18th-century zenith occupied entire rooms (“Much More Than Just Room at the Inn,” Dec 23). Secular motifs also began to intrude.

The baby Jesus was sometimes hard to spot since the story of his birth is just one of many played out in a complex landscape in which certain elements were de rigueur. In addition to the holy family, the angels, shepherds and animals, a classical ruin was a standard ingredient, along with a band of musicians and an inn. The scenes were filled with recognisable contemporary social types—men and women from all walks of life; beggars and dwarves had a special status. The three wise men were typically joined by Turks in Ottoman Empire dress and other richly clad Asians and north Africans, reflecting a fascination with the Orient.

Adding Zidane and Materazzi or other footballers to the pastoral scene would illustrate the tradition’s “tacky, modern-day incarnation,” in Smith’s words.

However football intrudes on your holiday, please accept our thanks for reading on for another year.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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