Pope urges Argentine, Italian soccer players: Be role models

(Photo: REUTERS / Stefano Rellandini)Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (R) applauds next to Argentina's Lionel Messi after a news conference at the Vatican, August 13, 2013. Argentina will play against Italy in a friendly soccer match on August 14 in honor of Pope Francis.

Pope Francis has met with members of the soccer teams from Italy and Argentine urging the players, who have super celebrity status in their countries, to act as role models.

Among the star players were Argentine and Barcelona maestro Lionel Messi and Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon who applauded after the game was dedicated to the pontiff.

"Dear players, I want especially to remind you that the way you behave, both on the field and off it, in life, is an example," Francis told the players reminding them of the influence they have, especially on young people.

The Pope met the teams ahead of a rare "friendly" match between the two soccer giants to be played Wednesday, the first time the two nations have clashed on field in 12 years.

On the same day England will play Scotland and Belgium take on France in similar non-tournament matches.

"This is a social responsibility," Francis said in speaking about the game known sometimes as "the beautiful game."

"Let me explain: In the game, when you are on the field, you find beauty, generosity, camaraderie. If a game is missing this, it loses its might, even if the team wins," Francis said when the teams met him on August 13 audience at the Vatican.

The first Latin American pope is known to be an avid supporter of the Saints of San Lorenzo team in Buenos Aires and seem delighted when he received Italian and Argentine team jerseys signed by the players.

Speaking Spanish, Pope Francis recalled going as a child with his family to see San Lorenzo.

"We went home happy, especially during the season of '46!" That year, San Lorenzo won all its home matches in its blue and red jerseys, and also beat both the Spanish and Portuguese national teams.

The Associated Press reported that the pontiff "gracefully dodged" a question about which team would get the papal blessing.

"It will really be a bit difficult for me to root, but luckily it's a friendly match" in which the result does not contribute to any standings, he said.

Pope Francis spoke at length of the influence the players have, especially on young people.

"Even if you don't realize it, you are a model, for good or ill, for so many people who look up to you. So be aware of this, and set an example of loyalty, respect and selflessness.

"You are also architects of understanding and social peace, which we need so much. You are role models for so many young people, and models of values embodied in life. I have confidence in all the good you can do among the young people," he said,

Turning to soccer managers Pope Francis said, "I want to encourage you in your work. Sport is important, but it must be true sport," urging them to "eliminate the danger of discrimination."

In Europe and in particular in Italy recently racist chants against players of African or foreign descent have marred matches along with fighting among the fans.

One of the Italian team members, Mario Balotelli, who is black and has faced fans' racism, had a private conversation with the Pope.

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