VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis cheered fellow Argentine Lionel Messi and other soccer stars Tuesday as he led a morality-focused pep rally of sorts at the Vatican for Argentina and Italy's national teams ahead of their eagerly awaited friendly match.
Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America, is an avid soccer fan who roots for the Saints of San Lorenzo back in Buenos Aires. Since his election as pope in March he has accumulated a growing collection of soccer jerseys tossed to him by fans at his public appearances. He got two more on Tuesday: an Argentine and an Italian team jersey, each one signed by the players.
Barcelona star Messi, his teammates on the Argentine national soccer squad, as well as Italy's national team players were treated to a private audience with Francis in the Apostolic Palace ahead of Wednesday's rare match, which is being played in tribute to the new pope.
Francis gracefully dodged the question of whether he'd offer a papal blessing for his home country's team. "It will really be a bit difficult for me to root, but luckily it's a friendly match" whose outcome doesn't count in the standings, he said.
The pontiff noted the influence of athletes, especially on youth, and told the players to remember that, "for better or worse" they are role models. "Dear players, you are very popular. People follow you, and not just on the field but also off it," he said. "That's a social responsibility."
The pope reminisced about going to soccer matches with his family as a youngster, and expressed concern about violence and discrimination in the sport, which he suggested keeps many families from attending the competitions today.
Many soccer matches in Europe have been marred by brawling among fans as well as racist chants against players of African and other descent.
One of Italy's national team members, Mario Balotelli, who is black and has been the target of fans' racism, was the only player to get private time with the pope. Francis and the striker spoke together in a small room off the sumptuous Clementine Hall where the audience was held.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said Balotelli looked "emotional" after their talk but that the player declined to say what he discussed with Francis. On Monday, Balotelli remarked that perhaps the pope might offer him special greetings because of his birthday this week.
Italian national coach Claudio Cesare Prandelli said he didn't get the chance to invite Francis to Wednesday's game.
"He anticipated my question," Prandelli said after the gathering. "He said he has received so many requests" to attend the game, but indicated that the Vatican security apparatus gave the thumbs-down.
Prandelli said Francis told him that Vatican security officials scold him "for being so undisciplined," a reference to the pope's frequent breaches of protocol when he embraces the faithful in crowds or shuns bullet-proof vehicles.
The pope also asked the players to pray for him, "so that I, on the 'field' upon which God placed me, can play an honest and courageous game for the good of us all."
Such a plea made quite an impression on Italy's captain, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who handed Francis an autographed soccer ball.
"He's warmed up the hearts again of all the faithful who might have drifted away" from the church during past papacies, Buffon said. With "a pope who's like this, it's easier to become better."
Messi said there were so many people at the gathering that he didn't get any private time to talk with the pope, who vigorously shook hands with each player. But the Argentine striker, whose left leg muscle strain could force him to sit out Wednesday's match, seemed to take the pope's message about role models to heart.
"The best way to respond" to Francis' appeal is "to put on a clean show tomorrow, on the field and in the stands," he said.