BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
THE POPE has offered spiritual solace to Italian referees at the beginning of the new football season.
Referees, who are frequently the butt of fans' derision, were told that sports should be a school of human formation, inspired by authentic values.
"Your presence allows me to express once again the hope that sports will always be a gymnasium of authentic human formation, inspired by ethical and spiritual values," the Pope said.
John Paul II, who was a formidable goalkeeper in his youth, met referees of the Italian Football Championship at a general audience in Rome. He greeted them personally and posed for a group picture. Among the referees was Pierluigi Collina, 43, considered by many sports pundits to be the best in the world. He was the referee at the England and Argentina game in the 2002 World Cup and went on to referee the final between Brazil and Germany.
Collina, despite an impeccable footballing pedigree, has suffered taunts. Unkind commentators liken him to Dan Dare's arch enemy, the Mekon.
The Pope also greeted managers of the Italian Soccer Federation.