Pope Francis meets Italy, Argentina
Pope Francis met with compatriot Lionel Messi and other players from Argentina and Italy and called on them to set a good example in Wednesday's international friendly in Rome and in all of their activities as professional sportsmen.
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The two national teams were given an audience at the Vatican with the Argentinian head of the Catholic church, who reminded them of their duties to a society which holds them in high regard.
"You footballers are popular and people follow you," the life-long San Lorenzo supporter is quoted as saying by Gazzetta dello Sport. "You have a social responsibility. More than being champions, you are men; carriers of humanity."
The pontiff, who admitted he is torn between who to support on Wednesday night, also appealed to the whole football family to retain the values of the game.
"Don’t lose the sporting character in favour of a football business," he said. "This guarantees that families come to the stadium and it discourages violence. The professional game must not forget its amateur beginnings, which value camaraderie and beauty.
"Fortunately this is just a friendly because it’s going to be hard for me to support one over the other."
Both Italy and Argentina national teams have shown camaraderie by sharing the same hotel in the build-up to Wednesday’s match at the Stadio Olimpico while they both partook in Tuesday's private meeting.
Earlier, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said he hoped the Pope would be able to attend Wednesday's match, although some divine intervention may be required for him to see Mario Balotelli in action.
"We play football games every day, every week, but you only get to visit the Pope once in your life," Prandelli said. "This Argentina game has a particular significance as it is our welcome to Pope Francis. Both sides are staying in the same hotel and there should be a celebratory spirit for everybody.
"I hope the Pope comes to see the game. I don't know if I'll be able to ask him myself because I'll be too emotional, but I hope he will come."
Balotelli remains a doubt for Wednesday's clash after picking up an injury to the same knee which was operated on during his Manchester City days.
"I'm delighted to be meeting the Pope," said Balotelli, who turned 23 on Monday. "What I think of him and what I say to him will remain between us. I hope he wishes me well for my birthday."
Prandelli, meanwhile, is hoping for a gift from Balotelli for the fans inside the Olimpico. "He needs to show the determination which can make him decisive," said the Italy coach, who believes the AC Milan forward and Roma's Pablo Osvaldo are his number one strike pairing.
"They have enormous potential," he added. "I've watched our friendly against Brazil in Geneva last March and I'm convinced that we showed our biggest attacking strength in that game [when Balotelli and Osvaldo started together]."