Last Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2007 | 3:16 PM ET
The Associated Press
Italian soccer has not been a pious spectacle of late, with riots and scandals marring a game that is practically a religion in the country.
Sports officials now hope Roman Catholic clergymen from 50 countries can bring back faith to soccer as they take to the pitch for the first time in a tournament for priests and seminarians kicking off Saturday.
Catholic institutes have entered 16 teams in the Clericus Cup, fielding 311 athletes from countries including the United States, Brazil, Papua New Guinea and Rwanda.
"It's an intelligent initiative which helps give a positive image to sport and especially to soccer," Italian Olympic Committee president Gianni Petrucci said Tuesday.
Even as Italy's national team was making its successful run for the World Cup last summer, club soccer at home was ravaged by a match-fixing scandal that led to sanctions against several top teams. Earlier this month, rioting at a game in Sicily caused the death of a policeman and forced authorities to take measures that included barring fans from many stadiums.
The Clericus Cup will run through June; most games will be played at a Vatican soccer pitch in Rome.
The matches will last one hour and rules will differ from professional club soccer. Teams will be allowed one time out and the referee will brandish a blue card, which will send off errant players for a five-minute suspension.
"I expect [the tournament] to create a friendly relationship among the players and the teams," said Cameroon's Rev. Emil Martin, who plays with the team of the Pontifical Urban College.
"I hope each one can learn to win but also to lose, because not everybody knows how to lose."