Palestinians only opposed the canceled soccer game between Argentina and Israel due to Israeli leaders’ decision to politicize it by relocating it from Haifa to Jerusalem, the head of the Palestinian Football Association said Wednesday.
“If the game between Argentina and Israel had been held in Haifa” as originally planned, Jibril Rajoub told The Times of Israel, “we wouldn’t have opposed it at all.”
Israeli soccer leadership said, meanwhile, that Rajoub’s efforts to thwart the game had “crossed every red line,” and vowed to seek punitive action in world forums.
Rajoub said that Palestinians only began to campaign against the match after Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev decided to move it to Jerusalem and “turn it into a political event.”
“If the game had stayed in Haifa, we as Palestinians would have opposed anyone who tried to hinder it,” he said. “But your government decided to make it political.”
From that moment on, he said, Palestinians launched an intense effort to prevent the game from taking place. “We sent messages and appealed to all relevant bodies on the matter, and in accordance with everything agreed upon in UN resolutions; as long as the game was being held within the UN-recognized borders of Israel, we had no problem with it.”
He insisted that the Palestinians had “nothing against Israeli games or [international teams’] games with Israel. The opposite is true.”
Rajoub has led repeated unsuccessful bids to ban or sanction Israel at FIFA over Israeli teams from settlements, as well as over restrictions on the movement of Palestinian players.
“Today is a day of victory for sports,” he said.
Rajoub also told Palestinian TV that Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi and his country “gave a slap in the face to Israeli racism.”
He said the planned game was “clearly political. The Israelis were trying to use Messi as an international icon. The Israeli government uses sports to cover up its crimes.”
The cancellation of the game, he added, was “a slap in the face to the Israeli government that spent millions for [the game] to take place in Jerusalem,” and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Regev, who wanted to “take their photos with Messi.”
The Culture and Sport Ministry’s director general, Yossi Sharabi, said Wednesday morning that “a final effort” was still being made to hold the game as planned.
Sharabi, speaking to Israel Radio, rejected suggestions that moving the match from its original Haifa location to Jerusalem had fanned protests and contributed to its cancellation.
“You can’t blame moving the game, we can’t accept a situation where we accept dictations not to play in Jerusalem,” he said, adding that “Jerusalem was never raised as an issue or a problem by the Argentine [Soccer] Association.”
Rather, Sharabi insisted, the issue was the Argentine team’s very arrival in Israel. “It’s an attempt to intimidate, a terrible threat campaign against players and their families,” he said.
On Tuesday, Argentina’s foreign minister said soccer players representing his country had misgivings about playing in Israel. Jorge Faurie did not confirm the game had been axed, but told reporters in Washington on the sidelines of the Organization of American States meeting that he believed players had been reluctant to travel to Israel to play.
“As far as I know, the players of the national team were not willing to play the game,” Faurie said, pointing to security concerns stemming from tensions on Israel’s borders and in Jerusalem.
A senior source at Argentina’s Football Federation told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the match in Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium had been canceled. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not have permission to comment.
The cancellation was confirmed by the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, which referred in a statement to “threats and provocations” against Messi.
Faurie also said players had received threats over playing the game and were uncomfortable with it going ahead. He cited jerseys stained with red paint resembling blood that had been displayed at a protest outside the team’s practice facility in Barcelona Tuesday as a cause for concern.
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
Protesters had said the jerseys were meant to be a comment on supposed Israeli crimes, not a threat against the players.
Earlier in the week Rajoub, the top PA soccer official, had called on Argentina to cancel the match, and urged Arab and Muslim sports fans to burn photos and t-shirts of Messi if he attended.
Arab Israeli MK Yousef Jabarin had also urged Argentina to cancel the match, citing Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip. Holding the match, he said in a letter to the Argentinian ambassador to Israel, “sends a dangerous message to the Israeli government that the world is ignoring its gross violations of human rights.”
Rajoub ‘crossed every red line’
The Israel Football Association said Wednesday that Rajoub in his “brutal and physical threats” against Argentina’s team had “crossed every red line,” and vowed action against the PA in international forums.
Israel plans to send a letter of complaint to FIFA, demanding punitive action against “those who dared to explicitly incite to harm soccer players,” it said.
Responding to the cancellation of the game, Regev, the culture and sport minister, said early Wednesday that Argentinian players had received threats from “terror groups.”
“Since they announced they would play against Israel, various 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. “These included video clips showing dead children.”
Argentina soccer federation vice president Hugo Moyano told local media the match being called off was a “good thing.”
“The right thing was done, it’s not worth it. 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.
The game, Argentina’s final warm-up match before the World Cup in Russia, which begins next week, was highly anticipated in Israel with tickets selling out in 20 minutes, but drew a furious reaction from the Palestinians.
Following the reports of cancellation, Israeli officials scrambled to try and get the game back on track, with Netanyahu phoning Argentinian President Mauricio Macri.
An official in Netanyahu’s office said that Macri had told Netanyahu the issue was out of his hands, and that there was only a slim chance the game could be salvaged.
The cancellation would seem to represent one of the biggest successes of the pro-Palestinian Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement in recent years.
Palestinian boycott groups welcomed the news, saying that Israel had been trying to “sports-wash its crimes against the Palestinians.”
The Culture and Sport Ministry’s Sharabi, meanwhile, was determined to remain optimistic.
“I want to remind everyone that two weeks ago the Giro was here,” he said, referencing Israel’s recent hosting of sections of the Giro d’Italia 2018 cycling competition.
“Before that there were basketball and judo championships. This was a regrettable isolated incident,” he added. “Things are not final, there is still a small hope.”
Agencies contributed to this report.