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Soccer fan Pope Francis meets Lionel Messi at the Vatican

August 13, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • Soccer star Lionel Messi presents and olive tree to Pope Francis.
Soccer star Lionel Messi presents and olive tree to Pope Francis. (Osservatore Romano / AFP/Getty…)

Is the Pope Catholic?

We'll vote yes on that one.

But what you may not know is the Argentine-born pontiff is also a big soccer fan, so it was hard to say who got the bigger thrill Tuesday when the pope met soccer god Lionel Messi at the Vatican.

Francis, an avid supporter of the Buenos Aires team Saints of San Lorenzo, welcomed the national teams of his native Argentina as well as Italy ahead of their much-hyped friendly Wednesday in Rome.

The players on both teams received a private audience with Francis in the Apostolic Palace after which the pope sidestepped the question of whether he gave a papal blessing to either team.

"It will really be difficult for me to root, but luckily it's a friendly match," he joked.

The so-called Soccer Summit had its serious side, too. Francis stressed that athletes, for better or worse, are role models, especially for children. And he urged the players in attendance Tuesday to use their influence responsibly.

"Dear players, you are very popular," he said. "People follow you, and not just on the field but also off it. That's a responsibility."

The message got through to Messi, who will miss Wednesday's match with injury.

"Respect for others and the opponent is the basis of everything, on the pitch as in life," he said. "We footballers, for our part, can spread [the Pope's] message and satisfy his request by always playing a beautiful game," he said.

According to the Associated Press, Italy's Mario Balotelli met with Francis alone, the only player to do so. Balotelli, who is black and has been the target of fans' racism, spoke with the pope in a small room off the sumptuous Clementine Hall where the audience was held.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, told the AP that Balotelli looked ''emotional'' after their talk but that the player declined to say what he discussed with Francis.

The pope warned the teams about the violence and money often attached to the game.

"Football has become a business -- take care that it does not lose its sporting nature," said Francis, who frequently attended matches with his family as a boy. Hopefully, he said, "we'll see families in the stands again."

The pope, who has accumulated a collection of soccer jerseys since since being elected pontiff, received two more Tuesday with each team presenting him with a national team shirt with his name on the back.

Then he asked both teams for one more thing: that they pray for him.

"So that I, on the field upon which God placed me, can play an honest and courageous game for the good of us all," he said.

That plea moved Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

"That's a sign of his great humility," Buffon said. "He's warmed up the hearts again of all the faithful who might have drifted away."

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