SPORTS

Argentina & Italy To Play For Pope, Lionel Messi To Meet With Pontiff Privately

El jugador del Barcelona, Lionel Messi, segundo desde la izquierda, controla el balón en un entrenamiento el viernes, 9 de agosto de 2013, en Kuala Lumpur, Malasia. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

El jugador del Barcelona, Lionel Messi, segundo desde la izquierda, controla el balón en un entrenamiento el viernes, 9 de agosto de 2013, en Kuala Lumpur, Malasia. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Twelve years after Italy and Argentina last played, the two predominantly Roman Catholic and soccer-mad nations are renewing their storied rivalry in a game dedicated to Pope Francis — an Argentine and a big soccer fan.

The match in Rome on Wednesday comes after months of talks between the Italian and Argentine federations.

The last time these teams met was in 2001 — also an exhibition in Rome that Argentina won 2-1. Before that, Diego Maradona's Argentina eliminated host Italy from the 1990 World Cup on penalty kicks in a semifinal in Naples.

Barcelona soccer star Lionel Messi, 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 teams meet Wednesday in Rome in a friendly match.

Francis told the players to remember they are role models on and off the field "for better or worse." He asked for their prayers for himself "on the playing field God put me on."

Francis lamented that sport has become big business.

Italian coach Cesare Prandelli came up with the idea of organizing the game.

"It was just a sudden flash, after watching Pope Francis and his first appearances in public," he recently told sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport. "He generated a tremendous sense of fondness and approval. The thought of 'his countries', Italy and Argentina, immediately entered my head. Two squads leaving together, from the same hotel, to have an audience full of joy and happiness with the pope."

It will be Italy's first match since the Azzurri finished third at the Confederations Cup. AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli is part of the team despite a slight calf injury as is fellow striker Pablo Osvaldo, who has been recalled after falling out with Prandelli.

The Roma striker, who was born in Buenos Aires and will likely get a chance to face his native country, was kicked out of the Confederations Cup squad for insulting his club coach at Roma — a breach of Prandelli's strict code of ethics.

Messi could miss the match after sitting out his club's final preseason game in Malaysia with a muscle strain in his left leg.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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