Proceeds from Pontiff's benefit soccer match will help support 430,000 schools
By Josephine McKenna
Caption: Former Argentine soccer player Diego Maradona perches on a balcony in Buenos Aires in July 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Marcos Brindicci
Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona says it was the influence of his countryman Pope Francis that revived his faith and brought him back to the Catholic Church.
The 55-year-old Maradona, regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, joined some of the world's other top players, including Brazilians Ronaldinho and Felipe Anderson as well as Italian player Francesco Totti, at the Pope's benefit soccer match held in Rome on Oct. 12.
"I am with Pope Francis; for him I am always available," Maradona told a news conference this week.
"He is doing a great job also inside the Vatican, which pleases all Catholics. I had distanced myself from the Church for many reasons.... Pope Francis made me come back."
The match, called United for Peace, took place at Rome's Olympic Stadium.
Proceeds will go to several Catholic charities, including the Scholas Occurrentes Foundation, which the Pope founded in 2015. The foundation operates in 190 countries and 430,000 schools across five continents, promoting social bonds as well as dialogue and peace.
It is not the first time Maradona has played a charity match in the Pope's name. When the soccer legend took part in a previous interreligious charity match in Rome two years ago, the game attracted 20,000 fans.
At the time, the Pope acknowledged the role of sport in building peace.
"Football is a human phenomenon, and special," Francis said. "A sports event is a highly symbolic act that helps show it is possible to build a culture of encounter and a world of peace, in which believers of diverse religions conserve their own identity while living in mutual respect."
Maradona led Argentina to a World Cup victory in 1986 after beating England in the quarterfinals and was named FIFA's joint player of the 20th century along with the Brazilian champion, Pele.