Barcelona FC took a break from its preseason training and touched down in the holy land Saturday for a two-day “peace tour” with Israeli and Palestinian kids.
Barcelona, a favorite among both Palestinian and Israeli fans of European soccer, arrived with a 300-strong delegation.
Barcelona’s top players, including Lionel Messi, regarded as one of the best to ever play the game, Xavier “Xavi” Hernandez, and Neymar da Silva Juntos, made the trip.
The players headed from the airport to a hotel in Jerusalem on Saturday afternoon, and then visited the West Bank Christian holy city of Bethlehem. They also met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. On Saturday evening, a large Palestinian crowd gathered to watch workshops and short games for hundreds of Palestinian children at the Dura Stadium in Hebron.
On Sunday, some 12,000 Israeli and Palestinian children from the West Bank are expected to attend a massive soccer clinic at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
Also on Sunday, the Catalan-Spanish team’s delegation will meet with Israeli dignitaries President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Education Minister Shai Piron, and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat. The team will also tour the Western Wall and visit holy sites in Jerusalem.
The two-day event marks the official launch of a multi-year initiative under the auspices of the Education Ministry, “The Other is Me,” which aims to promote tolerance and inclusiveness in the school system.
The event, announced in February, was also set to include the participation of the youth teams from Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin, rivals in Israeli soccer whose matches have sometimes ended in fan violence.
Peres, who was pivotal in setting up the visit, said in July that Barcelona’s trip to Israel was a way to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians “in the spirit of sportsmanship, moderation and patience.”
“We’ll do the utmost to make visit a success, and children in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority will have an exciting experience and good, positive memories that they’ll retain throughout their lives,” he said in a statement.
Plans for the visit were drawn up with the coordination of the Peres Center for Peace, the Israeli Football Association and the Palestinian Football Association. The visit was originally to have included an exhibition match between Barcelona and a joint Israeli-Palestinian Authority team of professional players, but the game was canceled after the Palestinians objected to playing alongside Israelis.