Argentina cancels Israel soccer friendly following Palestinian pressure

Buenos Aires official confirms to Associated Press that highly anticipated match in Jerusalem is off; Netanyahu phones Argentinean leader to try and save game

This June 5, 2018, picture shows a poster erected in the West Bank town of Hebron calling for a boycott of soccer star Lionel Messi (l) next to a portrait of the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER)
This June 5, 2018, picture shows a poster erected in the West Bank town of Hebron calling for a boycott of soccer star Lionel Messi (l) next to a portrait of the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER)

In the face of intense Palestinian pressure, Argentina has decided to pull out of a highly anticipated soccer match against Israel, days before Lionel Messi and co were scheduled to be take the pitch in Jerusalem, media reports said Tuesday.

The South Americans made the decision to withdraw from the Saturday friendly and informed the Israeli organizers, but have not yet made an official announcement, according to widespread reports in Argentinean media.

A senior source at Argentina’s Football Federation told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the match had been canceled. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not have permission to comment.

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.

The team decided to nix the game both over mounting pressure from pro-Palestinian groups and concerns over security for the Jerusalem match, the Buenos-Aires based Clarin daily reported.

Following the news, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Argentinian President Mauricio Macri to urge him to intercede with the Argentinian authorities to try and forestall the cancellation, the Ynet news site quoted a senior Israeli official as saying.

“The team is hesitant to come to Israel because of all the pressure that has been placed on them,” the official said.

Macri reportedly told Netanyahu that he had no control over the team’s decision, according to a senior Israeli official quoted in Hebrew-language media. The official said there was slim chance the game could be salvaged.

Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev — the driving force behind staging the game in Jerusalem — accused “terror groups and BDS” of being behind the cancellation, and expressed hopes Argentina would still go ahead with the game.

If the game is canceled, it would 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 Argentine squad, led by its superstar striker Lionel Messi, was to have played Israel on Saturday evening in the Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium.

The Palestinians on Monday threatened to torpedo the Latin American country’s bid to host the 2030 World Cup if the match went ahead. Last week the head of the Palestinian football association Jibril Rajoub had urged Arab fans to burn their Messi shirts and posters if the game went ahead.

“It is with regret that we hereby declare that, should the Argentinian National team continue its plans to play in Jerusalem, we will launch a worldwide campaign to question Argentina’s eligibility to host the FIFA World Cup 2030,” the Palestinian Football Association said in a statement.

Argentina, a two-time world champion and a contender to win the cup this summer, has confirmed its bid to host the 2030 tournament, together with Paraguay and Uruguay.

“The Palestinian Football Family calls upon the Argentinian Football association, and the Argentinian national team, to refrain from being used, by politicians in the Israeli Government, as a tool to normalize the illegal annexation of Occupied East Jerusalem, and to whitewash the Israeli systematic violations of international law and human rights,” the statement read.

By accepting the invitation to play “in the occupied city of Jerusalem,” Argentina risks being considered “unworthy” of hosting the 2030 World Cup, the statement continued.

BDS Argentina’s call to the Argentine national soccer team to boycott a friendly match against Israel planned for Tel Aviv on June 9. The hashtag #ArgentinaNoVayas means ‘Argentina don’t go.’ (BDS Argentina Facebook page)

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day war and later annexed it in a move not recognized by much of the international community. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and have been enraged over recent moves by the US to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there from Tel Aviv.

The stadium is in West Jerusalem.

The statement said the game would “send a message that the stars of Argentina are lending legitimacy to the illegal actions of an occupation that systematically abuses the human rights of around 5 million Palestinians struggling under its yoke.”

Lionel Messi of Argentina leaves the field during the Brazil Global Tour match between Brazil and Argentina at Melbourne Cricket Ground on June 9, 2017, in Melbourne, Australia. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images via JTA)

On Sunday Rajoub called on Messi not to play in the match and urged fans to burn their shirts if he does.

At a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah he told journalists he had written to Argentina’s government asking that Messi not take part in the June 9 friendly.

“This match has become a political tool,” Rajoub said in Arabic.

Head of the Palestinian Football Association Jibril Rajoub speaks during a press conference in front of Argentinian representative office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

“The Israeli government is trying to give it political significance by insisting it be held in Jerusalem.”

“Messi is a symbol of peace and love,” Rajoub said.

“We ask him not to participate in laundering the crimes of the occupation.”

Messi, he added, “has tens of millions of fans in the Arab and Muslim countries… we ask everyone to burn their shirts which bear his name and posters [with his image].”

Raphael Ahren and agencies contributed to this report.

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