The Vatican canceled a friendly football match between its new women’s team and a club in Vienna, after a number of Austrian players protested against the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion.
The match, which was scheduled to take place Saturday at the Mariahilf football club in the Austrian capital, was called off after several Austrians lifted up their shirts to reveal pro-choice messages painted on their stomachs and backs while the countries’ anthems were playing before kick-off.
One player wrote the slogan “my body my rules” on her back, according to images circulating on social media.
Vatican News, the official news agency of the Vatican City, said that the match turned into a “protest against the Church.” The tie was intended to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the club’s founding.
“During the Vatican’s anthem, some Austrian women raised their shirts, displaying writing on their stomachs and backs in favor of abortion, then sending pro-LGBT messages in opposition to the church’s stance,” the agency said. It added that politically charged banners were displayed in the stands.
The news agency described the team’s welcome as “truly unexpected,” and noted that they decided to abandon the game “with great sadness.”
“The protest caught the Vatican players by surprise, who were expecting a simple sporting event, and together with their manager, took the difficult decision not to take part in the match so as not to further the exploitation of the event,” the agency said.
FC Mariahilf said Sunday that it was still preparing an official statement on the incident.
“We are still working on an official statement regarding the cancellation of yesterday’s match, and will try to answer any unanswered questions following the release of the statement. Thank you for your understanding,” the team said on its official Facebook page.
Ernst Lackner, chairman of FC Mariahilf, said officials had not been aware of the protest plans and added that the incident would be reviewed. He noted, however, that freedom of expression “should be respected.”
“They [the Vatican team] didn’t come out to play… it’s really regrettable the game was called off,” he told Agence France-Presse.
A player from the Austrian team said that the Vatican “represents values that go against our self-determination,” according to the public broadcaster ORF.
The individual admitted, however, that they did not expect that the protest would lead to the match being canceled.
Vatican News reported that the team played their first match in May against a club from Rome and lost 10-0. The match in Vienna was scheduled to be their first international tie.
The Pope commented on the benefits of sport in May while marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Italian Sports Center, an association which promotes grassroots sporting initiatives and groups across Italy.
“When you face a competition, you learn that rules are essential to live together; that happiness is not found in unruliness, but in pursuing your goals faithfully,” he said according to Vatican News.
He added that sport can help “achieve a profound transformation of our society” and “foster a culture of dialogue and respectful encounters.”
Livia Borghese reported from Rome and Matthew Robinson wrote in London.