Lionel Messi hails "one of the most special days of my life"
Pope Francis met members of the Italy and Argentina football squads at the Vatican today, ahead of an exhibition match organised in honour of his Pontificate.
Speaking in both Italian and Spanish in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace, the Pope told the gathered players, including Argentina and Barcelona star Lionel Messi and Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon, that the match, to be played on Wednesday evening, will truly be a friendly one.
He reminded the players that they are role models for many football fans and encouraged them to take that responsibility seriously. He then asked them to foster the “beauty, generosity, and camaraderie” that sport can produce.
Pope Francis also spoke fondly of his childhood memories of watching San Lorenzo, his favourite team, at the Gasómetro Stadium in Buenos Aires, and called on players to “live your sport as a gift from God, an opportunity not only to improve your talents, but also a responsibility”. And he returned to the idea that athletes should act as role models, encouraging them to set an example of loyalty, respect, and selflessness. “I have confidence,” he said, “in all the good you can do, especially among young people.”
Pope Francis concluded by praying that the athletes will continue to be able to pursue the “noble vocation” of sport – and he asked them to pray for him, too, “that in the playing field that the Lord has placed me, I can play the game honestly and courageously, for the good of all.”
Speaking to reporters after their audience with the Pontiff, Messi, who will not play in the match due to injury, said the best way for the players to respond to what the Pope said was to give fans a clean and exciting game, and to live upright lives.
“Without a doubt, today was one of the most special days of my life,” he said. “We have to excel on and off the field.”
Buffon, who gave the pope a ball signed by all the Italian players, was asked if he thought meeting the Pope might spur the miracle needed to ensure that Italy and Argentina make it to the World Cup finals.
“Our job is to work hard to make sure we’re in the finals,” he said. “If Pope Francis does miracles, I think they’d be for more important things.”
Buffon said the Pope asking for the players’ prayers was another sign of his “humility and humanity”.
“With a Pope like this, it’s easier to be better. He shows us the way, he warms hearts, he moves people’s souls,” he added.