Argentina-Israel soccer friendly officially canceled
HAZEM BADER (AFP)
A friendly soccer match between Argentina’s and Israel’s national soccer teams that was set to be held in Jerusalem on Saturday has been cancelled, a statement from Argentine Football Association (AFO) said on Wednesday.
The head of AFO, Chqui Tapai, said that the cancellation of the match "Is a contribution to world peace. It's my responsibility to take care of the health and physical integrity of the entire delegation."
The announcement came shortly after the head of Israel’s soccer association, Ofer Eini, said in a press conference that the Palestinians have ”crossed a red line” blaming Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Federation, for ”doing all he can” to hinder Israel from participating in international football.
Eini slammed Rajoub’s calls for Arab and Muslim fans to burn photos and T-shirts of Lionel Messi.
Although the match had not been officially cancelled bu AFO until Wednesday, the Israeli Embassy in Argentina confirmed the cancellation on Tuesday, citing unspecified "threats and provocations" against Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.
"The Embassy of Israel regrets to communicate the suspension of the match between Israel and Argentina," a statement said, referring to "threats and provocations" against its superstar captain Messi.
The World Cup warm-up match had been scheduled to take place Saturday at Jerusalem's Teddy Kollek Stadium. The status of the match had previously been thrown into doubt following protests by Palestinian football authorities and an intensive campaign by the anti-Israel Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
In an attempt to salvage the game, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Argentinian President Mauricio Macri. The appeal was apparently unsuccessful, however, with an official in Netanyahu’s office telling Hebrew-language news outlets that Macri said the issue was out of his hands.
A report by the Argentinian daily Clarín citing official sources said that Macri had consulted with the Argentine Football Association on the issue 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 motivation for the cancellation were not political, the report said.
Netanyahu is currently visiting Europe and his office could not immediately confirm the reports.
Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie, speaking to reporters in Washington on the sidelines of the Organization of American States meeting, said that Argentinian players had expressed reluctance to travel to Israel to participate in the match.
"As far as I know, the players of the national team were not willing to play the game," Faurie said, adding that players had received threats over their participation in the match and were concerned over the security situation in Jerusalem.
Faurie referenced a protest that saw Argentina jerseys stained with red paint meant to resemble blood displayed outside the team's practice facility in Barcelona. Protesters said the display was meant to be representative of Israeli crimes against Palestinians, and not a threat against Argentina's players.
Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain expressed relief at the decision, telling ESPN: “In the end, they’ve done right thing, and this is behind us. Health and common sense come first. We felt that it wasn’t right to go.”
ULTIMO MOMENTO // Otro papelón de la AFA: Israel-Argentina en Jerusalén, suspendido en medio de temores por la seguridad. El encuentro estaba programado para el sábado. Más temprano había habido una protesta frente al predio donde se entrena Argentina en Barcelona. pic.twitter.com/zK19S23Zw1
— Fabián Destefano (@faymdq) June 5, 2018
On Sunday, Palestinian football boss Jibril Rajoub urged Messi not to play in the game in Jerusalem and urged fans to burn shirts bearing his name if he did.
"Messi is a symbol of peace and love," Rajoub said. "We ask him not to participate in laundering the crimes of the occupation."
Messi, he added, "has tens of millions of fans in the Arab and Muslim countries... we ask everyone to burn their shirts which bear his name and posters (with his image)."
Commenting on reports that the match had been cancelled, Israel's Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev claimed "terror groups" had made direct threats on the lives of Argentina's players and their families.
“Since they announced they would play against Israel, different terror groups have been sending messages and letters to players on the Argentina national team and their relatives, including clear threats to hurt them and on the lives of their families,” she said early Wednesday, adding that the threats "included video clips showing dead children."
Argentina's soccer federation vice president Hugo Moyano told local media that calling off the match was "the right thing".
"The stuff that happens in those places, where they kill so many people, as a human being you can’t accept that in any way. The players’ families were suffering due to the threats," he said, according to ESPN.
- A 'political tool' -
The Palestinian Football Association -- which had urged Messi not to take part -- welcomed the scrapping of the game, insisting sport should not "be a tool for politicians and for political extortion".
"What happened...is a red card from everybody to the Israelis," association boss Jibril Rajoub said at a press conference, sitting next to a sign reading "From Palestine thank you Messi".
Rajoub earlier told journalists he had written to Argentina's government asking that Messi not take part in the June 9 friendly.
"This match has become a political tool," Rajoub said in Arabic. "The Israeli government is trying to give it political significance by insisting it be held in Jerusalem."
The Palestinian Football Federation welcomed the cancellation of the match and said that with it, sport will not be used as "a tool of political blackmail."
It praised the Argentine players "led by the star Messi for refusing to be used as a bridge to achieve non-sporting goals."
Palestinians were incensed at US President Donald Trump's decision last December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move his country's embassy there, breaking with decades of careful policy towards the disputed city.
The controversial US mission in Jerusalem opened on May 14, fanning Palestinian outrage and sparking violent protests on the Gaza border, during which 61 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the single bloodiest day of conflict since the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.
Palestinians claim the Arab-majority eastern sector of Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while Israel considers the entire city its own "indivisible" capital.
The cancellation of the match is one of the BDS movement's biggest victories in years.
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The whole thing is a bloody disgrace. The football association if Argentina has succumbed to terrorist pressures. It's also a disgrace there man convicted of terrorism can be the head of the PA Football Association .