Liberman: Messi missed penalty because Argentina canceled Israel game
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World Cup 2018

Liberman: Messi missed penalty because Argentina canceled Israel game

Defense Minister suggests the soccer star's skills could have been sharper had team not pulled out of its final warm up game in Jerusalem in the wake of Palestinian pressure

Argentina's Lionel Messi covers his face during the group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Argentina's Lionel Messi covers his face during the group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman suggested Saturday that soccer soccer star Lionel Messi missed a crucial World Cup penalty because of Argentina’s last minute withdrawal from a warm-up game in Israel.

“In the Argentina against Iceland game we saw just how much Messi needed the warm-up game against Israel,” Liberman tweeted after Messi missed a penalty and Iceland held on for a 1-1 draw against Argentina in an impressive World Cup debut on Saturday.

Messi failed to give his team the lead when his 64th-minute penalty was stopped by Hannes Halldorsson. The Iceland goalkeeper dived to his right and got two hands behind the ball.

Argentina had pulled out of its final pre-World Cup warm up game with Israel amid intense protests and threats from the Palestinians after Israel decided to move the game to Jerusalem from Haifa, where it was originally to have been staged.

Liberman also hailed tiny Iceland for its “giant” team performance.

Arab Israeli lawmaker Ahmed Tibi also linked the miss to the withdrawal from the Israel game, tweeting a poll asking, “Who was happier that Messi missed his penalty today?”

The options were  Messi’s arch-rival from Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Israel’s Sport and Culture Minister Miri Regev, who was widely blamed for the decision to “politicize” the game by moving it to Jerusalem.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev speaks at a press conference regarding the cancellation of a soccer match between Argentina and Israel, in Tel Aviv, on June 6, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The friendly match was originally set to be held in the Samy Ofer Stadium in the coastal city of Haifa but was moved last month to the capital’s Teddy Kollek Stadium after “intense political pressure,” the Hadashot news television channel reported at the time.

The head of the Palestinian soccer federation, Jibril Rajoub, said that Israel’s insistence on holding the match in Jerusalem turned it into a “political tool,” and urged Arab and Muslim sports fans to burn photos and T-shirts of star player Lionel Messi if the game went ahead. FIFA has since announced the opening of disciplinary proceedings against Rajoub.

Liberman’s punditry notwithstanding, it’s far from clear that the extra game would have helped Messi with his penalty kicks.

Messi’s miss Saturday was his fourth failed penalty in his last seven attempts for Argentina and Barcelona.

Messi has missed more than 20 penalty kicks in his career, showing there is perhaps one flaw in his genius.

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)

The Argentines took the lead in Saturday’s match in the 19th minute, when Sergio Aguero scored with a rising left-footed shot. Alfred Finnbogason equalized for Iceland four minutes later after Argentina goalkeeper Willy Caballero pushed a low cross into the forward’s path.

The penalty was awarded after Aguero was pushed in the back by Hordur Magnusson as both chased Messi’s floated cross in the 63rd minute.

The small Nordic island nation’s team created several first-half chances despite having only 22 percent possession, and pushed back Argentina’s waves of second-half attacks.

Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson saves a penalty attempt by Argentina’s Lionel Messi during the group D match between Argentina and Iceland at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Messi had a last chance to redeem his team with the final kick of the game, but his free kick from 25 yards failed to clear a solid Iceland defensive wall.

At the end, Messi retreated alone into the center circle with his head bowed and hands on his knees.

Iceland played its debut on soccer’s biggest stage like it belonged alongside the 2014 runners-up. Before trailing, Iceland could have taken the lead but Birkir Bjarnason side-footed a shot wide of goal when Caballero was exposed.

That chance came in a nervous ninth minute for Argentina’s defense, which seemed unsettled by Iceland’s strength and their own unease with loose balls in the penalty area.

No Iceland defender was at fault for failing to stop Aguero’s goal. The forward executed a classy spin move to create his chance when a miscued shot by Marcos Rojo arrived at his feet near the penalty spot.

It was a finish worthy of Argentina great Diego Maradona, who was watching in the VIP section at Spartak Stadium. The FIFA ambassador was puffing a large cigar despite smoking being banned in all World Cup venues.

This was the first game in Group D, which looks even more evenly balanced now than it did at kickoff. Croatia and Nigeria are also in the group.

Argentina will next play Croatia on Thursday in Nizhny Novgorod, while Iceland plays Nigeria on Friday in Volgograd.

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