Pope Francis met soccer star Lionel Messi at the Vatican on Tuesday along with the national teams of his native Argentina and that of Italy, his ancestral homeland, in what has been dubbed the soccer summit.
A committed supporter of the Buenos Aires team, Saints of San Lorenzo, Pope Francis is a huge soccer fan who welcomed the two teams ahead of their upcoming match in Rome on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported
The Pontiff sidestepped a question on whether he gave one team in particular a papal blessing before the match during their meeting in the Apostolic Palace's Clementine Hall.
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"It will really be difficult for me to root, but luckily it's a friendly match," the Pope joked to reporters.
During the meeting, Pope Francis also told the athletes that they are role models, "for better or worse," and thus have a responsibility to set a good example to the many individuals who follow them as players and the sport at large.
"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 Pope's message made an impact on Messi, who after the meeting told reporters that "Respect for others and the opponent is the basis of everything, on the pitch as in life."
"We footballers, for our part, can spread [the Pope's] message and satisfy his request by always playing a beautiful game," the 26-year-old Argentine footballer added.
Due to an injury, Messi, who is one of the highest paid soccer players in the world earning an annual salary of just over $21 million, will sit out Wednesday's match.
The Pontiff also discussed the violence and money often associated with the game.
"Football has become a business – take care that it does not lose its sporting nature," Francis told the players.
Having fond memories of attending soccer matches in Argentina with his family when he was a child, the Pope added that he'd like to "see families in the stands again."
The only player to meet with the Pontiff alone was Italy's Mario Balotelli, who spoke with the pope in a small room off the sumptuous Clementine Hall, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The reason for the meeting was not disclosed by the Vatican, though a spokesman told the AP that the footballer appeared ''emotional' following the talk.
Balotelli, who was born in Italy, has in the past been targeted by racist fans for being of African descent.
Before parting ways, the Pontiff asked that the teams pray for him, repeating a request he made before St. Peter's Square during his inauguration in March.
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"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.
Gianluigi Buffon, Italy's goalkeeper, was moved by the gesture, calling it a "sign of his great humility," adding, "He's warmed up the hearts again of all the faithful who might have drifted away."
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