Escorted by police and the drums of a local Samba band, the national soccer teams of Argentina and Uruguay arrived at a Tel Aviv stadium Monday evening, ahead of the much-anticipated friendly match between the two soccer powerhouses.
In what is possibly the highest-level game ever to be played on Israeli soil, the two South American giants were to face off in an exhibition match expected to pit Argentina’s international powerhouse Lionel Messi against Uruguay’s Luis Suarez.
When not representing their national teams, both men play for Spanish club FC Barcelona.
About 200 Israelis from all backgrounds — Spanish speaking immigrants and native Hebrew speakers, Jews and Arabs, secular and even ultra-Orthodox — frantically welcomed the two team buses, which entered the stadium at the same time.
Hours before the match’s 9:30 p.m. kick off, thousands of supporters from both teams already arrived at Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield stadium, with some desperate for tickets, and offering handsome sums to those who had purchased in advance.
For some of the 30,000 who bought tickets in time, the game is a dream come true.
“As soon as we heard about this game, our entire family ran to get tickets,” recallde Gustavo Alguea, 30, who moved from Santa Fe, Argentina — Messi’s hometown — to Tel Aviv as a child. “What can be better than to see play Messi in the Holy Land,” he said.
“And especially against Uruguay — this is the clasico,” he added, referring to traditional soccer rivalry between the two neighboring Latin American countries.
Argentina will win 2-1, Algue predicted.
Jonathan Mitteman, who moved from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Israel a decade ago, hopes that his native country will win, but agreed that Messi’s crew had better chances. Adam, his 6-year-old son, also hoped that Uruguay and its superstar Luis Suarez would score an upset victory, but admitted that it appeared unlikely.
“Even a tie would be good,” his dad added.
The Argentinian team arrived in Israel on Sunday, a day after the team from Uruguay.
At a press conference later Sunday in a Tel Aviv hotel, Argentine coach Lionel Scaloni said that Messi would play in the match despite a punishing schedule, involving a friendly against Brazil two days before in Saudi Arabia.
“Messi plays,” Scaloni told reporters in Spanish. “So you can stay calm.”
He said he would decide the starting lineup at midday Monday, after his players had rested.
“They are tired, without any physical problem, but tired,” he said. “So we shall wait until tomorrow at noon.”
Israelis had fretted for days over whether Messi would make the trip or whether the game would take place at all, days after a flareup of violence between Israel and Gaza-based terrorists.
Uruguay’s coach Oscar Tabarez said Sunday that he had been concerned about the trip after seeing images of the fighting in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military said around 450 rockets were fired at its territory during the two-day skirmish and air defenses intercepted dozens of them in mid-flight.
A ceasefire was declared on Thursday morning, but remains fragile.
“I was very worried,” he told journalists. “Because from Montevideo, for example, they sent us photos of missiles that exploded in the air, and we don’t have experience in that.”
Monday’s match comes after the cancellation of a pre-World Cup friendly fixture between Argentina and Israel in June 2018 that was hounded by boycott calls from pro-Palestinian activists.
That match had been due to be played in Jerusalem, sparking Palestinian anger and criticism of Argentina online.
Israel considers Jerusalem its “indivisible” capital, while Palestinians claim the eastern part of the city — united by Israel in 1967 and later annexed — as the capital of their future state.
The 2018 cancellation led to FIFA fining and slapping a 12-month ban on Palestinian Football Association head Jibril Rajoub for “inciting hatred and violence” against Messi.
This year, both Argentina and Uruguay were also under pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
The Palestinian Football Association has not complained about Monday’s game.
Messi received a three-month international suspension for comments he made after Argentina was eliminated from the Copa America in July.
He accused CONMEBOL, the governing body of South American football, of corruption and fixing the tournament for hosts and eventual winners Brazil.
Messi returned to the national team on Friday, scoring the winning goal in Friday’s 1-0 victory over Brazil.