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Soccer-loving pope meets world-class stars

VATICAN CITY: Two big-name Argentines have had a VIP meeting at the Vatican — Pope Francis and Barcelona football star Lionel Messi.
The player, his fellow teammates on the Argentine national soccer squad as well as Italy’s national team players were enjoying a private audience Tuesday with the first Latin American-born pontiff in the Apostolic Palace.
The players, along with Italian coach Cesare Prandelli and Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella, met the 76-year-old at the Vatican before Wednesday’s game at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.
Pope Francis joked with the players, saying he was torn over who to support.
“It’s going to be difficult for me, it’s lucky it’s a friendly match! And let’s make sure it is one,” the Argentine pontiff said in a private meeting, which journalists listened to over the speakers in the Vatican’s press room.
On a serious note, the pontiff, a lifelong fan of Argentine club San Lorenzo, called on the teams to make sure they used their popularity to give a good example to their fans.
He told the players to remember they are role models on and off the field “for better or worse.”
Francis also lamented that sport has become big business.
Among those present was AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli, who is often in the headlines for his behavior on and off the pitch.
The players presented Francis with a personalized shirt from each team with his name on it, as well as a silver vase from the Argentinians and an olive tree from the Italians.
“Please pray for me, so that I too, on the ‘pitch’ God has placed me on, can play an honest and courageous game for the good of everyone,” the pope said at the end of the meeting.