Argentina cancels football friendly with Israel after Palestinian protest

Palestinians said Israel was trying to give the match political significance by insisting it be held in Jerusalem.
Wednesday 06/06/2018
Argentina's Lionel Messi controls the ball during a friendly soccer match between Argentina and Haiti at the Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 29. (AP)
Argentina's Lionel Messi controls the ball during a friendly soccer match between Argentina and Haiti at the Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 29. (AP)

LONDON - Argentina called off a FIFA World Cup warm-up match against Israel following protests by Palestinians who said the game was to be played at a controversial site in Jerusalem.

The head of the Palestinian football association, Jibril Rajoub, urged Argentina’s captain, Lionel Messi, not to play in the game in Jerusalem and told fans to burn shirts bearing Messi’s name if he did.

At a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Rajoub said he had written to Argentina’s government asking that its team not take part in the June 9 friendly.

“This match has become a political tool,” Rajoub said. “The Israeli government is trying to give it political significance by insisting it be held in Jerusalem.

“Messi is a symbol of peace and love. We ask him not to participate in laundering the crimes of the occupation.

Head of the Palestinian Football Association Jibril Rajoub speaks during a press conference in the West Bank town of Ramallah, on Jun. 6. (AP)
Head of the Palestinian Football Association Jibril Rajoub speaks during a press conference in the West Bank town of Ramallah, on Jun. 6. (AP)

The match was to have been played in Haifa but was relocated to a stadium in West Jerusalem that Rajoub complained it is in a neighbourhood built on the site of a Palestinian village destroyed during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948. The shift as game site was alleged to allow Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev to have a photo op with Messi.

Rajoub has long urged FIFA, football’s governing body, to expel Israel from the international football federation, citing Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinian players and because Israel maintains teams in West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law.

The cancellation came hours after pro-Palestinian activists staged a demonstration in front of the sports complex in Barcelona where Argentina is preparing ahead of the World Cup. Some waved the white-and-sky-blue jersey of Argentina’s national team stained with paint resembling blood.

“In the end, they’ve done right thing and this is behind us,” Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain told ESPN. “Health and common sense come first. We felt that it wasn’t right to go.”

The Israeli news site Ynet reported that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asked Argentine President Mauricio Macri to intervene.

The cancellation was seen as a victory for the pro-Palestinian campaign. The grass-roots movement advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel to promote Palestinian rights through non-violent means.

Israel says the campaign goes beyond Israeli occupation of lands claimed by the Palestinians and masks an aim of delegitimising the country. It formed a government ministry whose primary mission is to combat the boycott movement.

The boycott movement welcomed the cancellation. It said the Argentinian team responded to “creative campaigning” denouncing what it called Israel’s “sports-washing of its crimes against Palestinians.”

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the area in a move rejected by the international community. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

The Argentine decision may have been influenced by violence along the Israeli-Gaza border. More than 115 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 3,700 more wounded during near-weekly protests along the Israeli border, Palestinian health officials said. The majority of casualties have been unarmed.

Regev faced a barrage of criticism after Argentina called off the match because of orchestrating a politicised meeting with Messi and insisting on moving the game to Jerusalem.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog called the game cancellation a “spectacular own goal” by Regev that delivered victory to boycotters of Israel. Labour Party leader Avi Gabbay called for a police investigation into Regev’s “corrupt conduct.” Regev accused members of the Israeli parliament of being “Trojan horses who aid terrorism.”

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman slammed the Argentine national football team over the cancellation, calling it a surrender to hate.

“It’s a shame that Argentina’s footballing nobility did not withstand the pressure from Israeli-hating inciters,” he wrote on Twitter in the first response from an Israeli cabinet minister.

The sole aim of opponents of the Jerusalem game, Lieberman said, was “to strike at our basic right to self-defence and to bring about the destruction of Israel.”

A poster erected on a main street in the West Bank town of Hebron, denouncing a friendly football match between Argentina and Israel and calling Argentina's star Lionel Messi (portrait) to boycott the match. (AFP)
A poster erected on a main street in the West Bank town of Hebron, denouncing a friendly football match between Argentina and Israel and calling Argentina's star Lionel Messi (portrait) to boycott the match. (AFP)

Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie, on the sidelines of the Organisation of American States meeting, said he believed Argentina’s players had been reluctant to travel to Israel for the game.

“As far as I know, the players of the national team were not willing to play the game,” Faurie said before confirmation of the game’s cancellation.

Argentina’s coach Jorge Sampaoli had aired misgivings about having to travel to Israel, noting he would have preferred to remain in Barcelona, site of the team’s pre-World Cup training camp.

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.”

(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)