Vatican City

Pope torn on rooting for Italy or Argentina

Soccer a gift from God, Francis tells players

Pope torn on rooting for Italy or Argentina

(By Denis Greenan). Vatican City, August 13 - Soccer-loving Pope Francis confessed Tuesday he is torn as to whom to root for in the upcoming friendly between Italy and Argentina, his home team. "It will be a bit difficult for me when it comes to cheering, but fortunately this is a friendly - and I strongly advise that it truly remains as such," said Francis in an audience at the Vatican with the two national teams. They are playing in his honor at Rome's Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday, something the Vatican says will help launch an international schools network based on the pope's work as an archbishop in Buenos Aires. "Before you are champions, your are men first of all, human beings, with your gifts and flaws, with your hearts and ideas, aspirations and problems," the pope told the players. "So even if you're famous figures, always be men, in sport and in life. Men who display humanity. "Please, I ask that you pray for me, so that even I, on the field where God has placed me, can play the honest and courageous match for the good of all of us". The pope, a card-carrying fan of Buenos Aires club San Lorenzo, told the teams soccer was a gift from God. "I ask you to experience the sport as a gift from God, an opportunity to make your talents bear fruit, but also as a responsibility," he said.. Francis urged the players to remember that they were always setting an example, for better or worse. "With your behavior, on and off the field, in life, you set an example," he said. "For many who watch you with admiration, you are a model, for better or worse," he added, inviting them to be an example of "loyalty, respect and altruism". Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon said: "With such a pope, it's easier to improve. "He shows us the way, warms our hearts and shakes our souls," said the Juventus skipper. Argentina captain Lionel Messi, the world's best player, who will miss the game because of injury, gave the pope a bit of encouragement that was not game-related. "I dare to hope that Christ illuminates your path for children, the most vulnerable and those who suffer," Messi said in a message he handed Francis. Barcelona superstar Messi said he wanted to bring a personal greeting, on behalf of his friends and family, to the pope, to "encourage his work in wisdom, humility and sacrifice". Francis went on to tell Italian soccer's temperamental star Mario Balotelli, also out of the game because of injury, that he too had been criticised for lack of discipline. The pontiff came up with the trademark off-the-cuff remark while contrasting Argentina's unruly scrum to meet him with Italy's orderly queue. "Here in the Vatican they scold me for being undisciplined but you can see what country I come from," the pontiff quipped, agreeing to a brief, separate meeting with Balotelli, whose tantrums have eased since he joined AC Milan from Manchester City. The Ghanaian-Italian striker, who has become a symbol in the fight to rid stadiums of racism, said Monday he had "something important" to tell the pope about religion ahead of the match, where he will not play because of a knee problem. The Argentine pontiff has broken with starchy formalities with his common touch and habit of making impromptu speeches rather than reading prepared statements. He is forging an image of a mould-breaking maverick with efforts to take on cronyism and corruption in the Vatican government and its scandal-plagued bank. The friendly between the Azzurri and the pope's homeland was organised to honour Francis after he was elected the first pontiff from the Americas at March's conclave. The Vatican said Tuesday there would be no last-minute changes to Francis' inability to attend the match. Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone will be there instead. "We all know the pope's got too much on his plate," said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli. The pope got a shirt with Messi's name on it from well-wishers at a general audience in April, about a month after his election to succeed Benedict XVI. He was visibly delighted by the gift, a No.10 Barcelona replica shirt. San Lorenzo said last week that Francis pays "religiously" to keep up his membership. With Messi and Balotelli out, Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain, recently signed by Napoli, is probably the biggest draw for a match whose sales have already passed the 20,000 mark despite the usual heat-driven August exodus from the city. After coming third in the recent Confederations Cup, where they gave world champions Spain a fright before going out on penalties in the semi-finals, Italy is looking to the match as a handy test ahead of World Cup qualifiers in early September against Bulgaria and Czech Republic, where they are widely expected to clinch their place in next year's finals in Brazil. The Azzurri are top of European qualifying Group B for the World Cup with 14 points from six games, four more than second-placed Bulgaria and five more than third-placed Czech Republic. They play the Bulgarians in Palermo on September 6 before taking on the Czechs in Turin on September 10.

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