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Kicking off

13 June 2014

TALKING to young athletes in Rome last weekend, Pope Francis described three roads ahead of them: education, work, and sport. Follow them, he said, and there would be no dependency on drugs or alcohol, since each road would carry them forward. He called on politicians and sporting executives to bear this in mind. It was a gentle address, taking into consideration the youth of his audience, gathered to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Centro Sportivo Italiano, the chief sports association in Italy. The audience, all wearing sports shirts or tracksuits, would have taken his words for granted, but, for others, the elevation of sport as a third path towards adulthood is a surprising one. Yet the dedication, the practice of team playing, and the development of a physique to the exclusion of unhealthy substances and habits are all good life-lessons.

Pope Francis told his audience that sport can teach a committed and collaborative approach to life in general. But bad habits are communicated just as easily. The start of the World Cup in Brazil naturally focuses attention on football. Sadly, of all the sports, this is the one that serves its adherents least well. There is no doubt that players' inflated salaries warp expectation and affect behaviour, both on and off the pitch. When millions of pounds hang on the results of a game, it is not to be wondered at that some players are dishonest. What remains surprising, however, is how accepted it is: the professional foul followed by vehement protestations of innocence, lying about a throw-in, reacting histrionically to a trip - all are now standard tactics among professional footballers, and, by extension, throughout the game. The English Premiership, the richest league in the world, has much to answer for. When overseas players are considered for a Premiership side, a key question is always about how robust they are. For all the innovations of the past 20 years, the dirty, brutal tactics of the past remain, and, thanks to the television franchise, are exported around the world. Street urchins playing in the favelas of São Paolo, junior-league players in Northern Europe - all adopt the same tactics as their tarnished heroes. The last World Cup Final seemed more gladiatorial contest than football match.

And brutality on the pitch is all too often copied in real life. It was reported this week that the police were issuing warnings to individuals with a history of domestic violence: research suggests that incidents rise by one quarter if England win a match and one third if they lose. Those attending the sexual-violence summit in London this week heard that rape and brutality against women during warfare do not appear out of nowhere (nor do they necessarily disappear when peace is restored). International sporting events, in which players of different nationalities compete amicably, have a great potential to teach the world honour, respect, and fair play. Odd though it may sound, the World Cup needs our prayers.

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