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Kickin’ It for Pope Francis

Italy, Argentina Return to Field

Twelve years after Italy and Argentina last played, the two predominantly Roman Catholic and soccer-mad nations are renewing their storied rivalry in a game dedicated to Pope Francis — an Argentine and a big soccer fan.

The match in Rome on Wednesday comes after months of talks between the Italian and Argentine federations.

The last time these teams met was in 2001 — also an exhibition in Rome that Argentina won 2-1. Before that, Diego Maradona’s Argentina eliminated host Italy from the 1990 World Cup on penalty kicks in a semifinal in Naples.

The Italian and Argentine players are set to meet the pope in an audience at the Vatican before the match, but he is not expected to be in the stands at Stadio Olimpico.

Italian coach Cesare Prandelli came up with the idea of organizing the game.

“It was just a sudden flash, after watching Pope Francis and his first appearances in public,” he recently told sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport. “He generated a tremendous sense of fondness and approval. The thought of ‘his countries’, Italy and Argentina, immediately entered my head. Two squads leaving together, from the same hotel, to have an audience full of joy and happiness with the pope.”

It will be Italy’s first match since the Azzurri finished third at the Confederations Cup. AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli is part of the team despite a slight calf injury as is fellow striker Pablo Osvaldo, who has been recalled after falling out with Prandelli.

Lionel Messi, the Argentine great who plays for Barcelona, could miss the match after sitting out his club’s final preseason game in Malaysia with a muscle strain in his left leg.

In other high-profile matches Wednesday, England faces Scotland, world and European champion Spain travels to Ecuador, Belgium hosts France, Switzerland hosts Brazil and Uruguay plays at Japan.

Messi’s new Barcelona teammate, Brazilian striker Neymar, is expected to play against Switzerland after he was placed on the squad by coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.

The Brazilian coach is relying on many the same players he used at the Confederations Cup, with 19 of the 20 in the squad for the team’s game in Basel drawn from the group in Brazil.

England and Scotland are meeting for the first time in nearly 14 years, playing at Wembley amid speculation over Wayne Rooney’s future. The Manchester United striker, who reportedly wants to leave the Red Devils for Chelsea, missed United’s Community Shield win over Wigan with a shoulder injury but took part in training with England on Monday.

“There was no doubt in my mind in the session that he was not suffering from a physical injury,” England manager Roy Hodgson said. “Myself, my coaches and our fitness people will analyze everything and, in tandem with Wayne, will give him the right amount of minutes.”

Luis Suarez will find some comfort with the Uruguay team. He is looking to leave his Liverpool club and has faced harsh criticism for voicing such wishes.

Another player with his future reportedly hanging in the balance is Tottenham winger Gareth Bale, who will be on international duty with Wales. Bale, who is coveted by Real Madrid, has not played for nearly a month with the north London club after being hampered by a foot injury but has been selected for the exhibition game against Ireland in Cardiff.