Pope Benedict XVI Reportedly Will Be Closely Following the Action During the 2006 World Cup

VATICAN CITY (From countdown to 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ has already begun and by the time the finals are in full swing one thing is guaranteed: one distinguished viewer will be closely following the action from the Vatican.

On a recent trip to Rome Franz Beckenbauer heard Pope Benedict XVI reveal that he would be tuning in to see how the tournament unravelled in his homeland.

Beckenbauer was granted an audience with the Pontiff in October as part of his global tour of participating nations at next summer's FIFA World Cup.

"It was moving Beckenbauer president of the tournament's Organising Committee declared after the meeting. "He wished me luck and added that he would be watching many of the games on TV."

It appears that Pope Benedict XVI is following on from where his predecessor John Paul II left off. It was no secret that Polish-born Pontiff Karol Wojtyla who died in April this year was a die-hard fan of the beautiful game. Indeed when he was not studying for the priesthood he was keeping goal for his local side in Wadowice - there is even recently unearthed archive footage of his Holiness in action with a football at his feet and pilgrims are regularly known to visit the field where he played as a teenager.

Long a friend of the international football community Pope John Paul II received a number of FIFA delegations including all the referees prior to the 1990 FIFA World Cup finals the FIFA and Italian All Star teams playing on the occasion of the Italian Football Federation's centennial celebrations in 1998 and the entire FIFA Ex-Co and guests who met for the FIFA World Player Gala in Rome in 2000.

Many players have described meeting the Pope as an experience they will never forget. Tony Cascarino was part of the Republic of Ireland squad granted a special audience during Italia 90. "Only in hindsight do I know how privileged I was that this was one of the most memorable moments of my career he recalled. "I felt in later life like I sometimes did after a big game - that I had been part of something amazing yet we were so young the full significance had passed me by.

"We were all awestruck by the Pope himself though. I only really said 'hello' to him but some were almost moved to tears. Packie Bonner talked for a while goalkeeper to goalkeeper. It was obvious that the Pope really knew his football and you could tell it meant so much to Packie. Not that we wouldn’t take advantage of the moment. The next day in training every time we scored past Packie someone would shout 'The Pope would have saved that!'"

Roma idol Francesco Totti was another player touched by the football-loving Pontiff. When John Paul II passed away in April of this year Totti was moved to make his way down to Saint Peter's Square to pay his respects. He said later: "On the Saturday night my brother and some friends decided to go into the centre of Rome and we felt as though we were being drawn to the Vatican. I put a hat on so that I wouldn't be recognised and mixed with the people on the square. At that point they announced that he had died."

Born in Bavaria Benedict XVI will be an interested follower of events in Germany next summer although up to now he has kept the identity of his favourite team close to his chest. "I don't know if he's a Bayern fan but it's possible Beckenbauer said. "To speak about football with a Pope has been one of the most important moments of my life."