Any game involving Italy and Argentina is something to savour, but Wednesday's friendly between the teams promises to be extra special.
Dedicated to Buenos Aires-born Pope Francis, whose papacy began in March, the match at Rome's Stadio Olimpico will be a "great celebration" according to Cesare Prandelli. The Azzurri coach, who undertook three pilgrimages during UEFA EURO 2012, walking 21km to reach a convent on one occasion, is relishing the occasion. "He generated a tremendous sense of fondness and approval," the 55-year-old said of the Pope's recent inauguration. "The thought of 'his' countries, Italy and Argentina, came into my head straight away.
"This game will be our welcome message to Pope Francis. With both sides preparing for the game in the same hotel in a fantastic spirit, it will be a great celebration.
I really hope Pope Francis will come to see the game at the stadium but I'm not sure I have the courage to invite him. We play games every day but you visit the Pope once in a lifetime if you are lucky, so it will be a great feeling for me."
Both squads, residing in a hotel in nearby Villa Borghese, were received by the Pontiff in Vatican City on Tuesday evening. "I'm very happy to be able to meet the Pope," Mario Balotelli, who sits out the Olimpico fixture with a minor knock along with Lionel Messi, said on Monday, his 23rd birthday. "He really looks like a nice person to me. I hope he wishes me a happy birthday."
For new Sunderland AFC midfielder Emanuele Giaccherini, meanwhile, the papal audience was the icing on the cake. "I have had two wonderful years with Juventus," he said. "I was playing for Cesena only a couple of years ago, now I have won a Scudetto, reached the EURO final with Italy and played in the Confederations Cup in Brazil. And now I meet the Pope – it's just amazing."
Since their 1990 FIFA World Cup semi-final in Naples, when Diego Maradona's Argentina prevailed on penalties, the countries have met just once – in a Rome friendly in 2001. Gianluigi Buffon featured in that 2-1 defeat for the Azzurri 12 years ago and will move to within two appearances of Fabio Cannavaro's national record should he win his 134th cap, as expected.
"It's certainly a special game," said the Italy captain. "There are all the ingredients for a great game and for us to honour the match in the best possible way. We all know there are not three points at stake, but there are several other considerations that are important."
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