Divine intervention as Messi meets Pope Francis

Argentine ascendancy sees pope meet footballing superstar ahead of friendly

Pope Francis receives a gift from Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi (left) and Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (obscured) during a private audience at the Vatican. Photograph: Osservatore Romano/Reuters

Pope Francis receives a gift from Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi (left) and Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (obscured) during a private audience at the Vatican. Photograph: Osservatore Romano/Reuters

Tue, Aug 13, 2013, 17:31

Today was the day when the two most famous Argentines in the world came head to head, united by their common passion for football.

Argentina and Barcelona ace, Lionel Messi, met with Pope Francis in the Vatican this morning at a papal audience conceded on the eve of tomorrrow night’s prestige friendly game between Italy and Argentina.

The match will be held in honour of Pope Francis, a well known football fan and supporter of the Argentine club, San Lorenzo.

Addressing the members of both the Italian and Argentine squads, the pope confessed he would be in difficulty tomorrow night, not knowing who to support, but he consoled himself with the thought that “at least it’s a friendly”.

The pope also reminded the famous footballers gathered in the Sala Clementina in the Vatican of their responsibilities, saying: “You, dear players, are very popular...not just on the field but also off the field. This is a social responsibility.

“When you are on the pitch, you represent beauty, team spirit and willingness...If these things are missing, then the game loses something even if your team wins.”

Francis added that even if football has become a “huge business”, it is important that it not lose its “sporting character”, its “amateur attitude”.

Only in this way can football avoid the problems of violence which occasionally afflict it and only in this way will the football stadium see the return of families.

As he often does, Pope Francis concluded his speech by calling on his visitors to pray for him, saying: “I call on the Good Lord to bless you and may the Virgin Mary look after you. And please, I ask you to pray for me so that I can play an honest and courageous game in the field where God has placed me...”

Speaking after the audience, Messi conceded that this had been a very special day for him, adding: “I did not speak to the pope myself, there were too many people, but this was a very special day...

“I think his message to us is that, in these days of crisis, we can give a good example by showing respect on the field. I hope that tomorrow night’s game proves to be a good one and that people enjoy it...”

Italian goalkeeper Gigi Buffon also called it a “very special day” for him and all the other players, adding: “It was a great honour, a matter of great pride for all of us. This was a very special day, one that we will remember for the rest of our lives...

“Pope Francis is a special person, someone who shakes us all up, who wants to translate pious intentions into concrete actions...He is someone who every three or four days sends out important messages to the entire world...”

Italian coach Cesare Prandelli said that it had been a huge honour and that he had been in the right place, with the right man on the right day.

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