Since Argentine soccer megastar Lionel Messi and his teammates arrived in Israel Sunday, few sports reporters could refrain from making the same play on words, opening their reports about Monday evening’s friendly against Uruguay with the words messi-ba, which in Hebrew means both “Messi is coming” and “party.”
The game, held at Tel Aviv’s newly renovated Bloomfield stadium, was indeed a celebration, but more for the mere fact that it actually took place than for the actual game, which, despite four goals, wasn’t spectacular.
In June 2018, a few days before the World Cup in Russia, Argentina’s national soccer team and its superstar forward were scheduled to play the Israeli squad in Jerusalem. But after intense pressure from Palestinian officials and activists, the team canceled on short notice, leaving a soccer-crazed nation shocked and disappointed. Some Israelis took the cancellation so badly that they refused to support Argentina during the tournament, and even relished its poor performance.
But Israelis are a forgiving people, at least when it comes to soccer heroes, and so the country cheered when Canadian-Israeli billionaire philanthropist Sylvan Adams announced that he managed to get Messi’s team to come to Israel and play a friendly against Uruguay.
Monday’s game, too, was almost canceled, but not because of the anti-Israel boycott movement or Palestinian Authority officials, but due to last week’s conflagration with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group, which fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza at Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, after Israel killed one of the group’s senior military commanders.
If Israel had launched a ground incursion into the strip, there is no way the game would have taken place, Adams told The Times of Israel.
But both teams had already sent gear and senior administrative staff to Israel, and once the security situation calmed down, the game was confirmed.
And so it came to pass that 30,000 Israelis, many clad in blue-and-white jerseys (colors shared by Argentina and Uruguay, not to mention Israel), made their way to Bloomfield to see Messi and Uruguay’s superstar, Luis Suarez (who in his day job plays with Messi for Spain’s FC Barcelona club). Among them were also President Reuven Rivlin, Sports Minister Miri Regev, would-be prime minister Benny Gantz and super model Bar Refaeli.
I arrived about two hours before kickoff, and was immediately approached by a handful of desperate soccer aficionados offering handsome sums for tickets.
For others, who had wisely bought tickets before they sold out, Monday’s friendly was a dream come true.
“As soon as we heard about this game, our entire family ran to get tickets,” recalled Gustavo Alguea, 30, who moved from Santa Fe, Argentina — Messi’s hometown — to Tel Aviv as a child.
“What can be better than to see play Messi in the Holy Land,” he said. “And especially against Uruguay — this is the clasico,” he added, referring to the traditional soccer rivalry between the two neighboring Latin American countries.
Argentina will win 2-1, Alguea predicted.
Jonathan Mittelman, who moved to Israel 10 years ago from Montevideo, Uruguay, said he was rooting for his native country, but agreed that Messi’s crew had better chances. Adam, his six-year-old son, said he really wanted Suarez’s team to score an upset victory, but admitted that it appeared unlikely.
“Even a tie would be good,” his dad added.
A few minutes later, escorted by police and the drums of a local Samba band, the team buses of Argentina and Uruguay arrived at the stadium. Hundreds of Israelis from all backgrounds — new and veteran immigrants and native Hebrew speakers, Jews and Arabs, secular and even ultra-Orthodox — frantically welcomed the two vehicles entering the premises at the same time, before making their way into the stadium.
The match itself was decent, but not necessarily “the best game that was ever played in Israel, and that probably ever will be played,” as one fan said afterwards. Critics might have expected more from these two South American soccer powerhouses, but Bloomfield has certainly seen worse games.
Messi — whom many soccer experts consider the greatest player of his generation, if not of all time — did not play his best game. In the 21st minute, when he showed a glimpse of his genius, the stadium erupted for a second, but his formidable effort ended without even a shot on goal.
A quarter of an hour later, Uruguay’s Edison Cavani scored the first goal of the evening. Argentina equalized in the 63th minute with a beautiful Sergio Aguero header off of a Messi free kick.
Toward the end, the mostly sleepy game picked up some speed, and in the 67th minute Suarez put up Uruguay 2-1 with a free kick. The fans celebrated with several rounds of the Mexican wave.
One minute into stoppage time, a few moments before the final whistle, Israeli referee Roi Reinshreiber handed Argentina a penalty after a foul. And so it came that Messi, with a coolly executed shot to the bottom left corner, brought salvation to his languishing fans, many of whom who had already given up hope. At least they didn’t lose.
“Ayayayayay! We waited so patiently,” crowed stadium announcer Shay Sidi after Messi’s goal. Like the cantor at the very end of the Ne’ilah prayer on Yom Kippur, he then shouted “Leo” seven times, and each time 30,000 Israelis replied with a thundering “MESSI!”
A few minutes later, at the traditional post-game press conference, the coaches of both teams said they were very happy with the tie. While neither wanted to discuss politics, they said that Tel Aviv was a beautiful city, that they were treated very nicely by the Israeli organizers, and that they were very happy to have come to Israel.
Outside the stadium, hundreds of fans were still waiting to catch a selfie with, or at least a glimpse of, their long-awaited Messi-ah, who had finally played — and even scored a goal — in Israel.