POPE Francis cheered fellow Argentine Lionel Messi and other football stars as he led a rally of sorts at the Vatican for Argentina and Italy’s national teams ahead of a friendly match.
Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America, is an avid football fan who roots for the Saints of San Lorenzo back in Buenos Aires – so the spiritual leader arranged to meet stars including Andrea Pirlo and Messi in a a private audience in the Apostolic Palace ahead of Wednesday’s match, which is being played in tribute to the new pope.
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.
Francis also 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.”