Soccer match nixed after Argentina players threatened, officials say

Bloody jerseys displayed outside Barcelona practice; minister says ‘terrorists’ threatened players and families; striker calls cancellation of Jerusalem friendly the ‘right thing’

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi (L) and teammates take part in a training session at the FC Barcelona 'Joan Gamper' sports center in Sant Joan Despi near Barcelona on June 5, 2018. (AFP / PAU BARRENA)
Argentina's forward Lionel Messi (L) and teammates take part in a training session at the FC Barcelona 'Joan Gamper' sports center in Sant Joan Despi near Barcelona on June 5, 2018. (AFP / PAU BARRENA)

Argentina’s foreign minister said soccer players representing his country had harbored misgivings about playing in Israel, amid reports that Saturday’s friendly match in Jerusalem had been canceled following a Palestinian pressure campaign.

Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie did not confirm the game had been axed, but told reporters in Washington on the sidelines of the Organization of American States meeting that he believed players had been reluctant to travel to Israel for the game.

“As far as I know, the players of the national team were not willing to play the game,” Faurie said, pointing to security concerns stemming from tensions on Israel’s borders and in Jerusalem.

The Argentine squad, led by its superstar striker Lionel Messi, was to have played Israel on Saturday evening in Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium.

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.

Faurie said players had received threats over playing the game and were uncomfortable with it going ahead.

He also cited jerseys stained with red paint resembling blood which had been displayed at a protest outside the team’s practice facility in Barcelona Tuesday as a cause for concern.

Protesters had said the jerseys were meant to be a comment on supposed Israeli crimes, not a threat against the players.

“In the end, they’ve done right thing, and this is behind us,” Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain told ESPN. “Health and common sense come first. We felt that it wasn’t right to go.”

Responding to the cancellation reports, Israeli Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev said early Wednesday players had received threats from “terror groups.”

“Since they announced they would play against Israel, different terror groups have been sending messages and letters to players on the Argentina national team and their relatives, including clear threats to hurt them and on the lives of their families,” she said. “These included video clips showing dead children.”

Argentina soccer federation vice president Hugo Moyano told local media the match being called off was a “good thing.”

“The right thing was done, it’s not worth it. The stuff that happens in those places, where they kill so many people, as a human being you can’t accept that in any way. The players’ families were suffering due to the threats,” he said, according to ESPN.

A picture taken on June 5, 2018, shows a poster erected on a main street in the West Bank town of Hebron, denouncing the upcoming friendly football match between Argentina and Israel and calling Argentina’s star Lionel Messi (portrait) to boycott the match. (AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER)

Faurie said team coach Jorge Sampaoli had requested no further matches be scheduled ahead of the team’s World Cup opener against Iceland in Moscow on June 16.

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.

Following the reports, Israeli officials scrambled to try and get the game back on track, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoning Argentinian President Mauricio Macri.

An official in Netanyahu’s office told Hebrew-language news outlets that Macri had told Netanyahu the issue was out of his hands. The official sad there was a slim chance the game could be salvaged.

Sampaoli had last week aired misgivings about having to travel to Israel for the game, noting he would have preferred to remain in Barcelona, where the team is holding its training camp.

“From a sporting point of view, I would have preferred to play in Barcelona,” Sampaoli said.

“But that’s the way it is, we have to travel on the day before the match, play Israel in Israel and then from there go on to Russia.”

The cancellation represents 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.”

On Sunday, Palestinian football boss Jibril Rajoub urged Messi not to play in an Argentina-Israel game in Jerusalem and urged fans to burn their shirts if he does.

At a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Rajoub 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. “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.”

Argentina’s Lionel Messi (L) vies for the ball with Bolivia’s Fernando Saucedo during their Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup South American Qualifiers’ football match in Cordoba, Argentina, on March 29, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH / AFP / EITAN ABRAMOVICH)

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).”

The cancellation means Argentina will head into the World Cup with hardly any pre-tournament match preparation.

Their only other World Cup warm-up game was a 4-0 victory over Haiti in Buenos Aires last week which resembled a training exercise.

The AP contributed to this report.

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