Messi in middle of Israel-Palestinian spat over scrapped match


Argentina's forward Lionel Messi looks on from a bus as Argentina's national football team arrives ...
Argentina's forward Lionel Messi looks on from a bus as Argentina's national football team arrives at El Prat airport in Barcelona on May 31, 2018. Photo/AFP

In Summary

  • The sold-out game in Jerusalem was hotly opposed by Palestinians, who claim the eastern part of the city, occupied and later annexed by Israel, as the capital of their future state.
  • It had originally been scheduled to take place the northern Israeli city of Haifa but was moved after pressure from Israel's hardline sports minister, Miri Regev.
  • Palestinians were already angered by US President Donald Trump's transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May.

The Israeli and Palestinian football associations traded accusations over the cancellation of a World Cup warm-up match between the Jewish state and Argentina in the disputed city of Jerusalem.

Israel accused the Palestinians of “football terror,” saying their threats saw Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi and his team abandon what would have been Argentina’s final friendly match ahead of the World Cup.

The Palestinians rejected the allegation, saying the Argentinians pulled out of the match as they realised Israel was using their presence for political gain.

The encounter was called off on Tuesday after a campaign by the Palestinians following its relocation to Jerusalem.

“We are confronting a football terror from the Palestinian Football Association and its president (Jibril Rajoub),” said Rotem Kamer of the Israel Football Association.

He accused them of threatening players and their families, without providing any evidence.

“We are seeing it as crossing a red line and we cannot accept it,” Kamer said, adding an official complaint would be sent to world football’s governing body FIFA.

The sold-out game in Jerusalem was hotly opposed by Palestinians, who claim the eastern part of the city, occupied and later annexed by Israel, as the capital of their future state.

It had originally been scheduled to take place the northern Israeli city of Haifa but was moved after pressure from Israel’s hardline sports minister, Miri Regev.

Palestinians were already angered by US President Donald Trump’s transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, which sparked protests in Gaza in which dozens of Palestinians were killed.

Red Card

Israel considers Jerusalem its “indivisible” capital.

Ahead of the game Rajoub had urged Messi not to take part and called on fans to burn shirts bearing his name if he did.

Speaking on Wednesday, he thanked the Argentinians for the cancellation, saying he hopes they will win the World Cup.

“I think what happened yesterday is a red card from everybody to the Israelis to (get them to) understand that they (only) have a right to organise, or play football within their internationally recognised borders,” he said in English, pointing out the final status of Jerusalem is supposed to be the subject of negotiations between the parties.

Rajoub laughed off Israeli threats of action, denying there was any intimidation.

“The Argentinian Football Association cancelled the agreement it signed with the Israelis because it reached the conclusion that this match is a political one.”

Israeli media said that late Tuesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Argentine President Mauricio Macri, with whom he has good relations, in an effort to save the match but that Macri had said he was unable to intervene.

Netanyahu is currently visiting Europe and his office could not immediately confirm the reports.

Israeli daily Yisrael Hayom, considered close to Netanyahu, expressed ire at Argentina with its front-page headline: “They surrendered to terrorism: The game against Argentina has been cancelled.”

Argentina Players ‘Not Willing’ 

Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie said before confirmation of the game’s cancellation that he believed his country’s players had been reluctant to travel to Israel for the match.

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

The status of Jerusalem, always a key sticking point in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, surged back to centre-stage when Trump tore up decades of US policy to recognise it as Israel’s capital in December.

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