Pope Francis joked with Italy and Argentina players on the eve of a friendly football match in Rome on Tuesday, 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.

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.

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.

"You, dear players, are very popular. People follow your example, off the pitch as well as on. You have a social responsibility," he said.

Among those present was AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli, who is often in the headlines for his behaviour on and off the pitch.

The players presented Francis with a personalised 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.

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