20,000 of 30,000 tickets were never put on sale to public

Minister accused of conditioning cash for soccer game on photo op with Messi

Role of Miri Regev’s ministry in sold-out Israel-Argentina friendly match in Jerusalem generates growing controversy

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

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)
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)

A hotly anticipated soccer match between Israel and Argentina featuring Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, and originally slated for the northern city of Haifa until it was transferred to Jerusalem, has turned into a political football.

On Monday, opposition lawmakers claimed that money changed hands to ensure photo opportunities for the culture and sports minister, Miri Regev, while the state comptroller’s office opened a probe into why so many tickets to the friendly game were reserved for sponsors and other bodies in advance.

The issue came up through the Knesset State Control Committee, whose chairwoman, Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union), said she had been told by a senior official at the Culture and Sports Ministry that the ministry had agreed to pay the organizers NIS 2.6 million ($730,000) to move the game from Haifa to Jerusalem, on the condition that the minister, Miri Regev, be given an “active role” in the event, including a handshake with Messi on the pitch, and a press conference.

Regev’s chief of staff, Guy Inbar, denied the charge, after which Yachimovich continued, “Will the minister not get a photo opportunity with Messi?”

Inbar replied, “We are not aware of anything like this. There was no linkage.”

Shelly Yachimovich attends the presentation of the State Comptroller’s report at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on March 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The match, scheduled for Saturday night, has been the talk of the nation, with soccer fans trying to work out how to lay their hands on a ticket.

That was until the media discovered last week that, out of 30,000 tickets to the game to be played at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, just a third were put on public sale, whereupon they sold out in 20 minutes.

Following a complaint last week by the head of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee, Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union), the state comptroller’s office agreed to open an investigation into the ticket sales.

A representative for Comtec, the company organizing the game, told Monday’s Knesset State Control Committee that 7,700 tickets were requested by the Football Association — 1,200 for free — while 2,000 were set aside for residents of Israel’s geographic periphery, and 500 for people living close to the Gaza border. A fashion chain bought 2,000 tickets to distribute to children and youth from the periphery and to various NGOs. And a further 7,000 were reserved for sponsors, including 4,200 for the supermarket chain Shufersal, with the rest shared among another seven sponsors. The Culture and Sport Ministry obtained 200 tickets for its employees. That left fewer than 11,000 tickets to be sold to the public, the representative said.

On Sunday, following negative media coverage and a meeting between representatives of the ministry and Deputy Attorney General Dina Silber, the ministry announced it was giving up on its 200 tickets. Some of the other organizations reportedly followed suit.

MK Zouheir Bahloul (Zionist Union) said at Monday’s committee hearing that all the facts pointed at a “vulgar political intervention,” and that tickets had been distributed to interested parties at the public’s expense.

“What should have a been a sporting celebration has become a tool with which to squeeze political capital for anyone whose hand is near the honeypot,” he said.

A statement from the ministry said, “It is to our regret that the rumor mill and baseless claims also reached the State Control Committee. The Culture and Sport Ministry vehemently rejects any statement suggesting that the decision to support Israel’s friendship game with Argentina was made with a view to increasing the exposure of the minister of culture and sport, or to obtaining 200 tickets for ministry employees.”

Last month, a spat between Regev and President Reuven Rivlin reportedly took place at Israel’s soccer cup finals, when the president threatened to leave if Regev went onto the pitch to shake the players’ hands in contravention of protocol.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev seen with fans before the start of the match between Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin FC, at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, on January 22, 2018. (Roy Alima/ Flash90)

On Sunday, the head of the Palestinian soccer federation called on Arab and Muslim sports fans to burn photos and T-shirts of Messi if he attends the friendly match in Jerusalem.

Jibril Rajoub made the call, after a demonstration in front of the Argentinian representative office in Ramallah, where he asked Argentina to cancel the match.

The Palestinians do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, and claim that the eastern part will be their capital in any future peace deal.

Argentina has played Israel several times in friendly matches, usually before the World Cup, suffering a 1-2 defeat in 1998, but crushing the Israelis 7-2 in 1990, with Diego Maradona at the helm.

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