Pope Francis welcomes Messi and Balotelli to the Vatican

Pope Francis has welcomed football stars Mario Balotelli and Lionel Messi to the Vatican ahead of Wednesday's friendly between Italy and Argentina which is being played in honour of the first pontiff from Latin America.

Lionel Messi presents Pope Francis a gift on behalf of the Argentinian team. Credit: EBU

The players gave the Pope an Italy and Argentina shirt each signed by the players.

The Pope received a signed Argentina shirt. Credit: EBU

Italy manager Cesar Prandelli said that the pope revealed to him that Vatican security officials despair at him "for being so undisciplined" - a reference to the Pope's frequent breaches of protocol when he embraces the faithful in crowds or shuns bullet-proof vehicles.

The pontiff's apparent lack of discipline may resonate with one of the most controversial characters in the game - Mario Balotelli.

Italy manager Cesar Prandelli gave Pope Francis a signed Italy shirt. Credit: EBU

The former Manchester City striker, who celebrated his 23rd birthday yesterday, was the only player to get a chance to privately speak with the Pope.

A Vatican spokesman said Balotelli looked "emotional" after their talk but that the player declined to say what they discussed.

The Pope pictured with the Italian national side. Credit: EBU
Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, handed Francis an autographed soccer ball. Credit: EBU

The Pope reminded the players of their "social responsibility" as role models to fans across the world.

The message seemed to resonate with the world's best player, Lionel Messi, who said "the best way to respond" to the pontiff's plea was to "to put on a clean show tomorrow, on the field and in the stands."

The Pope reminded the players of their "social responsibility" as role models to fans across the world. Credit: EBU
The Pope received a signed football as well as shirts from both national sides. Credit: EBU

Pope Francis, who is an avid fan of Argentine side San Lorenzo, avoided the question of who he would support tomorrow night saying, "It will really be a bit difficult for me to root, but luckily it's a friendly match."