VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis normally has no competition for attention when he is in a room but it was different on Monday when another larger-than-life Argentine - soccer great Diego Maradona - attended a papal event.
Maradona was among some 400 people who attended a special papal audience for players and organizers of a charity match that was being played on Monday night in Rome to promote peace and inter-religious cooperation.
The pope read an address to the participants in the Vatican’s large audience hall and then each of them filed past the pontiff to greet and have their picture taken with the leader of the world’s approximately 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
Maradona, who led Argentina to World Cup victory in 1986 and played for Italian side Napoli, sat in the front row waiting his turn to greet the pope.
As the participants walked down the steps of the stage to return to their seats many of them stopped to greet Maradona and have their pictures taken with him immediately afterwards.
When his turn came to greet the pope, Maradona chatted with his compatriot longer than most of the others and gave him a light blue-and-white jersey with his Argentine national team number - 10 - and the name Francisco on it.
“Pope Francis is even bigger than Maradona,” the former Argentina captain and coach told reporters, adding that Francis had inspired him to return to religion after many years.
“We should all imitate Pope Francis. If each one of us gives something to someone else, no-one in the world would be starving,” said Maradona, who wore a dark suit to the papal audience.
In his address to the participants, Francis said he hoped Monday night’s match at Rome’s Olympic Stadium would help lead to ”peaceful co-existence among all people, excluding every discrimination based on race, language or religion.
“Discrimination is contempt,” the pope said, adding that religions had a large role to play in bringing peace to the world and that sport, particularly soccer, could be a vehicle for peace.
Monday night’s match, which was based on a suggestion by the pope, includes active and retired players of various religions.
Besides Maradona, participants at the audience in the Vatican included Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfielder Andrea Pirlo, former Italy striker Roberto Baggio and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
The proceeds will go to Scholas, a project backed by the pope that aims to connect schools and educational networks from different cultures and beliefs from around the world and the Pupi Foundation, started by former footballer Javier Zanetti to help poor children in Argentina.
Editing by Rex Gowar