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Pope Tells Mario Balotelli: 'Be An Example'
Pope Francis has lectured football stars including Lionel Messi and Mario Balotelli on their social responsibility - telling them "there is no place for individualism".
The pontiff spoke to players from the Italy and Argentina national teams at the Vatican on the eve of a friendly match between the sides in Rome.
He told them he was torn over who to support, saying: "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 76-year-old, 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," he said,
"People follow your example, off the pitch as well as on. You have a social responsibility."
He also joked with AC Milan striker Balotelli, who is often in the headlines for bad behaviour, saying: "Here in the Vatican, they tell me I'm undisciplined!"
The Pope also stressed the importance of "beauty, camaraderie and altruism" when playing football.
"Otherwise something is missing from the match, even if you win. There is no place for individualism, everything should be about the team," he said.
Argentine superstar Messi, who will miss Wednesday's game at Rome's Stadio Olimpico due to injury, said at a news conference following the meeting that the pontiff was right.
"Respect for others and the opponent is the basis of everything, on the pitch as in life," he said.
"We footballers, for our part, can spread (the Pope's) message and satisfy his request by always playing a beautiful game," he added.
The Pope also warned the teams about steering clear of the violence and money often attached to the game.
"Football has become a business - take care that it does not lose its sporting nature," he said, calling for an end to a culture of competitiveness which inspires hooligans to violence and drives families away from stadiums.
The players presented Francis with a personalised shirt from each team with his name on it, 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.