VATICAN CITY – Sgt. Raul Vargas clutched a small necklace with a golden cross, a memento for his 8-year-old daughter, as he awaited Pope Francis’s weekly remarks at St. Peters Basilica.
What brought him to Rome in the first place? The “Vatican Cup, friendly soccer match against the Swiss Guard – who protect Pope Francis – is an annual tradition for U.S. Soldiers in Italy. It provided an unusual opportunity for Vargas, a logistics noncommissioned officer from the Vicenza, Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade, to bring his faith and his love of soccer together.
Vargas, 31, who was raised Catholic in Mexico City, joined a contingent of U.S. Soldiers – most of them members of U.S. Army Garrison Italy’s Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program for the Vatican trip. Seeing the Pope in person was a career highlight, Vargas said.
“The fact that he lets his own guards play against us in a soccer match, I feel blessed,” said Vargas, a lifelong soccer player who explains that his first spoken word was ball. “This is something greater than just a match. This is something that will impact our lives in the future.”
Prior to Pope Francis’s remarks, a nun greeted the Soldiers in front of thousands of attendees.
“We welcome the Soldiers from U.S. Army Garrison Italy at Vicenza,” she said, as the BOSS group erupted in cheers.
More than just a trip to Rome
Soldiers visiting the Eternal City took part in a papal audience and competed in a friendly competition against troops from a foreign military – much more than what a tourist normally does, said Col. Scott Horrigan, USAG Italy commander, who attended with Command Sgt. Maj. Jonathan Dyon, the garrison’s senior enlisted leader.
“It’s an awesome experience for them and an example of how BOSS gives them that option,” Horrigan said. “These are Soldiers and they have a day job, but they also take competition seriously.”
The Pontifical Swiss Guard, known as the world’s smallest army, have been guarding Popes and the Apostolic Palace since 1506. There are approximately 130 Swiss soldiers tasked with protecting the Pope.
The games began a decade ago when Claudio Adamo, a retired garrison Directorate of Public Works employee, collaborated with Fabio Bertoluzzi a Swiss Guard friend, to start the “Vatican Cup.” For the past ten years, the friendly rivalry has mostly seen the Vatican guards as victors in these soccer games. In August, the Swiss Guards played the U.S. Soldiers at Caserma Ederle and lost.
Cathy Garcia, the BOSS representative from the garrison Directorate of Families, Morale, Welfare and Recreation, organized the trip that included that included 18 Soldiers and one Airman from both Vicenza and Camp Darby. Planning took nearly a year, but it was worth it, she said.
“I get to meet Soldiers with different backgrounds and show them different parts of Europe and make their experience here better,” Garcia said.
From Kick Off to Hat Trick
In the first half, the Americans took a quick 3-1 lead – thanks to Sgt. Jose Ortiz, a 173rd NCO who scored three times. The U.S. Soldiers held hopes for an easy win.
At half time, Swiss Guard Vice Corporal Joel Imholz, 25, from Uri – Switzerland’s oldest canton, spoke of similarities between the two teams.
“It’s a great honor when we’re playing against Soldiers,” Imholz said. “It’s also the soldier against the soldier, we all make different experiences in the army, but at the end of the day, it’s probably the same all over the world.”
The Swiss turned things around in the second half, evening the score to 3-3. Ultimately, with penalty kicks, 4 to 1, the Swiss Guards won – taking the trophy back from the U.S. Army.
Soccer remains important to the pontiff, who is a fan of San Lorenzo Almagro, a soccer team in his native Argentina. He reportedly relies upon the Swiss Guard to tell him the scores. Just as in the Pope’s earlier remarks in St. Peters Square, there was joy. Both teams had fun, on and off the field.
Reflecting on the experience
For Chaplain (Maj.) Stephen McDermott, a garrison priest, Rome feels like coming home, he said. He shepherded the troops through the city, to the Vatican and the nearby Swiss Guard barracks. Then, he was the referee for the soccer game. He called the ongoing matches between the U.S. Army and the Swiss Guard a “wonderful, friendly rivalry.”
“It’s such a wonderful cultural and spiritual experience, for all,” McDermott said.
For Sgt. Kevin Navas, 25, of Union City, New Jersey, Rome’s walkable streets reminded him of home. Co-captain with Vargas, Navas missed last year’s Swiss Guard game due to 173rd training. Through sport, Soldiers from various jobs and backgrounds build cohesion and camaraderie, he said.
“It’s not just soccer, it’s a community we’ve built,” Navas said. “It’s open to everyone, not just soccer players, so we have a range from beginner to advanced. We have fun on and off the pitch. People help each other out, especially with all the (jobs). You’ll have finance people help out infantry guys. When they (move) they still talk with each other.”
In the evening, before the game, Dyon offered a pep talk while the Soldiers’ warmed up. He hopes events like this help spark a greater interest in the BOSS program among other Soldiers.
“It’s more than just great trips to go on” Dyon said. “It’s also a way to find healthy habits and friendships that are out of their usual teams, and find activities that they like and to enjoy the country they’re in.”