Written by Gerard Holden
November 21, 2022
We Scots have always had a good reputation internationally. The Tartan Army are famous for fun loving antics and tomfoolery. Traffic cones on statues, tuneless chanting and balmoral bonnets. It’s true we are a friendly bunch, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that’s the end of the story. Remember, as well as being the only unconquered territory in the Roman Occident, rebellious Caledonians were also a cornerstone of the most powerful modern empire that spanned the world. And, as much as Cumberland tried to eradicate our history, the Scottish Highlands was home to the most terrifying land army known to man, (no, not Inverness Cally Thistle) the Jacobites no less! Yes, look beyond our jocularity and you’ll soon discover the Scottish seminarian’s steel behind his kneeler.
Every Autumn, the Pontifical Irish College host a 5-aside football tournament in the memory of Ragheed Ganni, an Iraqi priest who was martyred in his home parish in Mosul in 2007 for refusing to close down his church. His death caused shock waves across the Christian world and now every year Seminarians from all over gather in Rome to celebrate his life and compete for the much coveted “Ragheed Cup”.
The competition seems to bring out the hidden side of seminarians. Perhaps their hearts and minds are captivated on the day by the tenacious spirit of the brave Iraqi priest to whom they offer up their prayers and admiration before kick off.
By a happy accident competition day this year fell on a beautiful morning in October. The rising sun was saluted by the crisp autumn air and the stomping sound of rubber studded boots marched on towards the front lines under the banner of a heavenly Roman sky. Footballers from all around Christendom; Europeans, Asians, Africans, Americans, Australasians and Germans gathered together like regiments. Some say saltires were visible up in the firmament although others claim they were the vapour trails of crossing flight paths to and from Ciampino.
As kick off approached any initial friendliness had long since dissipated. Tensions were now bubbling like a simmering Irish stew. Battle fixtures had been drawn up and the Scots were first to take to the field against the skilful Italians.
However, before the referee blew his war whistle, an armistice was summoned by a priest of the college. This man of good will urged opposing infantries to come together to try and remember that this day was meant for confraternity. His intentions were well meant but the Wisdom of Solomon held sway in the souls not only of the brave Scots but all who knew in their heart of hearts that in life there is a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. It was clear what time today was a time for
The whistle blew! The battle between Scotland and Italy commenced. Needless to say it was not a bashful but bashing display by the Scots. The ball was a red rag to the Scottish Bull. Tackles flew in like arrows and shots like cannonballs. Palpable terror gripped the Italians and onlookers. I looked around and saw in their eyes a fear that would take the heart of me. A sinister silence hung upon the field. Every moment of Italian possession was characterised by trepidation. In that moment, my heart softened and I wanted to ease their fears. As the defender, I had been granted the keys to the kingdom so I decided to open the gates just enough to allow the wilting Italians a goal. On paper we lost the battle but knew we had won the war!
Having made our mark, we breezed through into the quarterfinals and faced the rebellious Irish who tempered our passion with humour and charm. Scotland were out of the Ragheed Ganni Cup but our heads were held high. And rightfully so. We had preserved our precious status as passionate warrior poets of the beautiful game. And for that I hope you all are eternally grateful. There were only seven men in that squadron but never in the field of football conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.
The surpassing victor is without doubt Ragheed Ganni. After all, winning a silver trophy is merely a perishable wreath. But this brave Iraqi priest won something imperishable when he faced down his oppressors who, brandishing their weapons, ordered him to close down his church. Fr. Ganni responded like only a true martyr could, “How can I close down the house of God?”
I’m not a natural fan of football commentary but this is both moving and hilarious, an excellent piece! Fr Ganni would have humbly approved I’m sure.