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Pope Francis VillarrealGratitude is one of the traits of a good athlete, Pope Francis told members of the Villarreal football club who visited the Vatican on Thursday ahead of their clash with AS Roma in their second leg of the Europa League championship.

“You must remember the many people who have helped you and without whom you would not be here,” the Pope told club players, managers and coaching staff.

These include, he said, those with whom you played as children, your first teammates, coaches, assistants, and also your fans that encourage you in every game with their presence.

The football loving Pontiff said such memories are important and help one not to feel superior but to always be aware that one is only part of a great team that goes back a long time.

“Feeling this way helps us grow as people, because our ‘game’ is not only ours, but also that of others, who are somehow part of our lives,” he said.

And this also strengthens the spirit of amateur sport, and must never be lost; it must be recovered every day, so that you can maintain this freshness, with this greatness of soul, he said.

Pope Francis concluded his audience by encouraging the athletes to keep playing and to keep giving the best of themselves so that others can enjoy those beautiful moments.

He acknowledged, “It helps me a lot to think about football as I like it, and it helps me. But when I do so, I usually think of the goalkeeper. Why? Because he has to catch the ball from wherever they kick it, and he does not know where it will come from. And life is like that. You have to take things from where they come, and how they come.”

“When I find myself facing situations I did not expect, which need to be resolved, that come from one place when I expected them from another, I think of the goalkeeper, and keep him in mind. Thank you”.

Earlier in his address, Pope Francis said that “Football, like other sports, is an image of life and society.”

Receiving the sports stars in audience in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace, the Pope told the players: “In the field, you need each other. Each player brings his professionalism and skill for the benefit of a common ideal, which is to play well in order to win. To achieve this affinity, much training is needed; but it is also important to invest time and effort in strengthening team spirit, to create that connection of movements: a simple look, a small gesture, or an expression communicate so many things on the field.

“This is possible if you play in the spirit of fellowship, setting aside individualism or personal aspirations. If you play for the good of the group, then it is easier to win. Instead, when one thinks of himself and forgets others, in Argentina we say that he likes to ‘eat the ball’ by himself.

“On the other hand, when you play football you are at the same time educating and transmitting values. Many people, especially the young, admire and observe you. They want to be like you. Through your professionalism, you are communicating a way of being to those who follow you, especially the new generations. This is a responsibility, and should motivate you to give the best of yourselves, so as to exercise those values that in football must be palpable: companionship, personal commitment, the beauty of the game, team spirit”.

The Pope remarked that one of the characteristics of the good sportsman is gratitude. “If we think of our own life, we can call to memory the many people who have helped us, and without whom we would not be here. We can recall those we played with as children, our first teammates, coaches, helpers, and even the supporters whose presence encouraged us in every game. This memory is good for us, so that we do not feel superior but instead become aware of being part of a large team that has been forming for some time.”

Francis concluded by encouraging those present “to continue to play, giving the best of yourselves so that others can benefit from these pleasant moments, which make the day different”.

He said: “I join with you, I pray with you, and I raise my prayers to God, imploring the protection of Our Lady of Grace and the intercession of St Pascual Baylón, patron of the city of Villarreal, so that you may be sustained in your lives and be instruments to bear God’s joy and peace to those who follow and support you.”