A soccer exhibition match between Israel and Argentina slated for Saturday in Jerusalem has been canceled, Israel’s embassy in Argentina confirmed early Wednesday, citing unspecified "threats and provocations" against star player Lionel Messi.
Argentine media reported that the reason for the cancellation was Palestinian pressure and requests by leading players on the Argentina team, including Messi and Javier Mascherano, not to come to Israel. Argentinian sports daily Ole reported that the match was cancelled following "threats and controversy."
A letter sent by Palestine Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub on May 28 urged the Argentina Football Association to call off the game after the game was moved to Jerusalem from Haifa following "political pressure" by the Israeli government, specifically mentioning Culture Minister Miri Regev.
"This is a decision that, given the current context, the Palestine Football Association utterly rejects and condemns," the letter said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Argentine President Mauricio Macri late Tuesday, at Culture Minister Miri Regev’s request, in an attempt to prevent the game’s cancellation. Macri informed Netanyahu in a follow-up conversation, however, that he is unable to influence the final decision, sources in the Prime Minister’s Bureau said.
The Argentinian daily Clarín reported that according to official sources, Macri examined the issue with the Argentine Football Association and learned that "the players don’t want to play in Israel because of threats against Messi." Macri apologized to Netanyahu and said that the players’ motivations were not political, the report said.
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The report also said Macri was intending to attend the game himself along with a delegation of businessmen from the Argentine Jewish community.
Argentine player Gonzalo Higuaín told ESPN that "they’ve finally done the right thing. Rationale and health come before everything else. We think its best not go to Israel."
File photo: Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain during a soccer match, May 2018.Victor R. Caivano/AP
The Israel Football Association said that it has not yet received an official notice about the game being canceled and that it has been in "direct contact" with the heads of the Argentine Football Association and of FIFA following the reports. The Association attacked Palestine Rajoub, saying that his threats have "crossed every red line."
Rajoub urged fans on Sunday to burn pictures of striker Messi and replicas of his shirt if he plays in the match.
Palestinians were not happy that the match would have been held in Jerusalem and Rajoub wrote to Claudio Tapia, the head of the Argentinian FA, last week accusing Israel of using the match as a "political tool."
In recent days pressure has been exerted on Messi and the Argentine Football Association not to play in Jerusalem, which has included demonstrations in Buenos Aires and in Barcelona in front of the national team’s training camp.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lierberman lamented the decision on his twitter account, writing: "It’s too bad the soccer knights of Argentina did not withstand the pressure of the Israeli-hating inciters, whose only goal is to impinge our basic right to self-defense and bring about the destruction of Israel. We will not yield before a pack of anti-Semitic terrorist supporters."
FILE PHOTO: Argentina’s Lionel Messi controls the ball during the international friendly soccer match.Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan responded to the cancellation on Israel Radio on Wednesday. "What happened here, truthfully, is less about the boycott. There’s a good friendship with Argentina, terrific relations. Due to violent incitement and threats by Jibril Rajoub and the whole bloodied jerseys charade, fear rose for the personal safety and the players started to fret over being physically assaulted in Jerusalem. Regretfully, before they inquired in depth, they preferred to let the whole thing go. This is a submission to violence and terror that the Palestinians are trying to use, but let’s look at the big picture and not lose proportions."
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan said "terrorism must be fought against," calling on Netanyahu to cancel Rajoub’s entry permit to Israel. "Rajoub is a despicable enemy," he said, "[Israel] must declare him and the entire Palestinian Authority as enemies."
MK Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Union) spoke of the match’s cancellation Tuesday night, saying: "Instead of soccer, Miri Regev wanted politics and she got politics, and those who will pay the price are the fans who so looked forward to this historic game. It’s a great farce that gives immense momentum to the BDS campaign against Israel. Despite everything, we still implore Argentina’s players: This is a mistake. Come for the soccer, let go of the politics."
Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh also referred to the issue in a statement, saying "Netanyahu’s government may be gaining Trump, but it’s losing the world. You can’t just keep enjoying games while the rights of millions of Palestinians are being trampled. There’s only one way to win – ending the occupation and a real peace treaty. It’s still possible."
MK Haneen Zoabi (Joint List) hailed the Argentine decision, saying that "holding the match while soldiers butcher the citizens of Gaza is unseemly and may be seen as allowing it." Lawmaker Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) also praised the call, adding that "the right-wing government has to realize it cannot crudely trample the UN’s resolutions and the rules of the international court and expect the world to ignore it."
It should be noted that the Argentine national team did not want to play in Israel in the first place, but preferred to prepare for the World Cup, which will open in nine days in Russia, in Barcelona.
Jorge Sampaoli, coach of Argentina, who was not interested in a game in Israel, complained about it again in the last few days. The chances of Israel going to Barcelona are small and Argentina has already started looking for another training rival.
Game moved to Jerusalem
The Teddi stadium, which was supposed to host the match, is in West Jerusalem. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city as the capital of a future state that will include the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
However, the status of the city generally is highly sensitive. The match was originally slated to be played in Haifa but Israeli authorities contributed funding for it to be moved to Jerusalem, irking Palestinians further following U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital. The U.S. embassy was moved there last month.
"The Israeli government has turned a regular sports match into a political tool. As was widely covered in Argentinian media, the match now is being played in order to celebrate the ’70th anniversary of the State of Israel’," part of Rajoub’s letter said.
On Sunday, Rajoub declared a campaign against Argentina and particularly Messi, noting he has millions of fans across the Arab and Islamic world, Asia and Africa.
"He’s a big symbol so we are going to target him personally and we call on all to burn his picture and his shirt and to abandon him. We still hope that Messi will not come," he told reporters after leaving the Argentinian representative office in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
A small group of youths wearing Palestine soccer scarves demonstrated outside the representation office and attempted to set fire to an Argentinian flag.
Rajoub has long tried to get soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, and the International Olympic Committee to impose sanctions against Israel. This is mainly because of the Israeli government’s settlements policy in the West Bank and because it has imposed travel restrictions on Palestinian athletes citing security concerns. Those bodies have not heeded his calls.
Argentina have made four previous pre-World Cup stopovers in Israel since 1986. The team has been drawn in World Cup Group D and will open its campaign against Iceland in Moscow on June 16.
Most countries do not recognise either Israel’s or the Palestinians’ sovereignty in Jerusalem and have embassies to Israel in the Tel Aviv area. However, Guatemala and Honduras followed the U.S. lead in moving their embassies last month.
Reuters contributed to this report