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‘Friend of Israel/friend of Palestine’: Israeli, Arab lawmakers mourn Maradona

Outspoken supporter of Palestinian cause, star athlete who played in Jewish state several times adored and eulogized by soccer-crazy Israelis

Argentinian soccer star Diego Maradona concentrates on receiving an incoming ball during the Argentinian national team practice held in Ramat Gan Stadium May 29, 1994. (AP/Nati Harnik)
Argentinian soccer star Diego Maradona concentrates on receiving an incoming ball during the Argentinian national team practice held in Ramat Gan Stadium May 29, 1994. (AP/Nati Harnik)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin eulogized Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona Wednesday, with the former calling him a “true friend of Israel.”

Maradona, 60, died earlier Wednesday, two weeks after being released from a Buenos Aires hospital following brain surgery. A hero to many in Israel and across the world for his flashes of brilliance on the soccer field, he was also an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights.

He visited the Jewish state at least twice, winning matches for the Argentine national team over Israel in Ramat Gan in 1986 and 1994.

“My son Avner used to update us regularly on the results of his games,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “On behalf of all Israeli citizens, I express my deepest condolences for the death of my dear friend.”

Rivlin called Maradona a “wonderful artist of soccer who brought light and joy to millions around the world.

“A soccer legend whose story we will tell over and over. Those of us who saw him play the ball with such lightness of touch, unstoppable on his way to the goal, together with our children and grandchildren who heard the stories of every legendary goal — all give thanks tonight,” Rivlin said.

“Thank you for unforgettable moments, in sorrow and in joy, for the moments of hope and pure happiness that you brought to millions around the world. I send consolation to the Argentinian people and to soccer fans everywhere on this sad evening.”

In this Oct. 25, 1997 file photo, Diego Armando Maradona celebrates a goal on his last official soccer game with Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (AP Photo/Eduardo Di Baia, File)

Blue and White MK Eitan Ginzburg who was born in Argentina and heads an Israeli Friends of Argentina caucus, said that “like many of my peers around the world, I too grew up on the football genius, Diego Armando Maradona.”

“As the head of the Israel-Argentina Friendship Group, on this sad evening, I would like to extend my condolences to the Argentine people on the untimely death of this talented man who was a legend even during his lifetime,” he said.

Joint List MK Yousef Jabarin made a point in highlighting Maradona’s commitment to the Palestinian cause.

He “was not only a great footballer, but a fighter for justice with all his heart, and a true friend of the Palestinian people and of leftist forces in Latin America. He will be missed by us al. May his memory be a blessing,” Jabarin said.

Maradona met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Russia in 2018 and told the premier, “In my heart, I’m Palestinian.”

In an Instagram post sharing a photo of the two hugging, Maradona wrote in Spanish, “This man wants peace in Palestine. Mr. President Abbas, you have a full-fledged country.”

Maradona was vocal in his support for the Palestinian cause in the past, and urged the speedy establishment of a Palestinian state.

“I am the number one fan of the Palestinian people,” he said in 2012. “I respect them and sympathize with them.”

In 2014, during the Gaza-Israel war known as Operation Protective Edge, Maradona said, “What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is shameful.”

Later that same year, it was briefly rumored that Maradona was in negotiations with the Palestinian Football Association over the possibility of coaching the Palestinian national team during the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, though that never materialized.

The soccer star, considered one of the best to ever play the game, helped Argentina win the 1986 World Cup, including one controversial goal he famously attributed to “the hand of God.”

AP contributed to this report.

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