Houston, Texas, Feb 5, 2017 / 08:00 am (CNA/EWTN News).- As the Patriots and the Falcons gear up for Super Bowl LI, Pope Francis sent a message to both players and viewers, saying the game is an opportunity to show solidarity and build virtue.

“Great sporting events like today's Super Bowl are highly symbolic, showing that it is possible to build a culture of encounter and a world of peace,” the Pope said in his message, published on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 5. “By participating in sports, we are able to go beyond our own self-interest and — in a healthy way — we learn to sacrifice, to grow in fidelity and respect the rules,” he said, speaking in his native Spanish.

The pontiff voiced hope that this year’s Super Bowl may be “a sign of peace, friendship and solidarity to the world.” Pope Francis, a self-proclaimed soccer lover, has often spoken of sports as a privileged place to learn virtue and practice fraternity. He himself played as a child, though he admitted in a 2015 interview with online Argentine sports news site TyC Sports that he was a “patadura” — meaning he wasn’t good at kicking the ball — and preferred to play basketball instead.

In addition to autographing jerseys and making frequent references to his favorite soccer team, the San Lorenzo team of Argentina, Francis has also demonstrated the weight he places on the value of sports by organizing two editions of a “Match for Peace.” These matches drew big name players from teams and countries around the world, including Javier Zanetti and Diego Maradona, who donned cleats in a game at Rome’s Olympic Stadium in a show of peace and fraternity.

The Pope’s video message, however, marks the first time a Pope has sent a direct message for the Super Bowl, which draws millions of viewers both nationally and abroad. According to CNN, last year’s Super Bowl 50 was the third-most watched game in broadcast history, with roughly 111.9 million TV viewers either cheering or booing as the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-10. Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 was even higher, with an audience of 112.2 million viewers, the second most-watched in broadcast history, online streamers not included. CBS reportedly set a new Super Bowl streaming record last year with an average of 1.4 million viewers per minute, according to CNN.