Messi’s soccer match in Israel could be canceled over Gaza fighting

Argentina, Uruguay agree to wait on decision until Thursday; if much-anticipated friendly is called off, it would be a significant financial and political blow for Jerusalem

Barcelona's Lionel Messi, right, and Luis Suarez, left, celebrate after a Messi goal in Barcelona, Spain, March 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Barcelona's Lionel Messi, right, and Luis Suarez, left, celebrate after a Messi goal in Barcelona, Spain, March 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The current fighting between Israel and terror groups in the Gaza Strip is likely to cause several high-profile soccer matches, including the much-anticipated friendly game between Argentina and Uruguay, to be canceled, according to reports on Tuesday.

After hundreds of rockets were launched at Israeli cities and communities, leading many schools in the south and center to shut down for at least two days, Israel’s UEFA Cup qualifier against Poland planned for Saturday in Jerusalem will probably be postponed, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Kan quoted the spokesperson for Poland’s team, Jakub Kwiatkowski, as saying: “Of course [we are concerned]. It’s not a situation we face on a daily basis. For us it’s something new. In case we find that even one person thinks that it’s not safe to go there, we will do everything to protect the players and protect the team.”

The One sports website cited unnamed officials estimating that Monday’s Argentina-Uruguay match, featuring superstars Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, would likely be called off. However, the site later said the teams had agreed to wait until Thursday to make their decision.

The Uruguayan team is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Saturday, while Argentina is expected to come on Monday.

Poland’s Krzysztof Piatek celebrates with teammates after scoring his side’s opening goal during the Euro 2020 group G qualifying soccer match between Poland and Israel at the Narodowy stadium in Warsaw, Poland, June 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Israel has a lot to lose from the cancellation of that match, planned for Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield stadium.

It is possibly the highest-level match ever to be played on Israeli soil, and it features Messi, the player widely regarded to be among the world’s best.

All the tickets to the match, about 30,000, sold out in lightning speed when they went on sale, and the potential cancellation would disappoint many fans and cause immense financial losses for all involved.

It would also be a geopolitical blow to Israel, which would lose the prestige of hosting such a high-profile match and lose out on hosting Messi for the second time in as many years.

Both teams have been under pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Last year Argentina called off a World Cup warm-up match against Israel due to BDS pressure ahead of the game and threats to Argentina’s national team. Argentina had been scheduled to play Israel in June 2018 in Jerusalem just before the World Cup in Russia.

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 head of the Palestinian Football Association launched a campaign at the time to stop Argentina from playing in Israel, calling on Arab soccer fans to burn Messi posters and jerseys if he participated in the game.

Jibril Rajoub’s campaign ultimately led to Argentina canceling the warm-up match in Jerusalem. Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie said at the time that players felt “totally attacked, violated” after images emerged of the team’s white and sky-blue striped jerseys stained with red paint resembling blood.

The 2018 cancellation led to political fallout, and to FIFA fining and slapping a 12-month ban on Rajoub for “inciting hatred and violence” against Messi.

The punishment marked an embarrassing blow for Rajoub, who has long lobbied FIFA to sanction Israel for what he has called its restriction of movement of Palestinian players.

Israel has rejected the Palestinian campaign as an attempt to politicize sports and has cited security concerns as the reason the restrictions placed on Palestinian players, particularly in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

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