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Top international soccer stars descend on Israel for weekend of matches

England’s Tottenham play Italy’s AS Roma in pre-season friendly in Haifa on Saturday, before PSG, with superstars Messi and Neymar, take on Nantes in French Super Cup in Tel Aviv

AS Roma's Argentinian striker Paulo Dybala places a note as he prays by the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on July 29, 2022, during a visit alongside his teammates on the eve of their friendly football match with Tottenham Hotspur in the Israeli city of Haifa. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
AS Roma's Argentinian striker Paulo Dybala places a note as he prays by the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on July 29, 2022, during a visit alongside his teammates on the eve of their friendly football match with Tottenham Hotspur in the Israeli city of Haifa. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Israeli fans will be able to catch a rare glimpse of a plethora of global soccer stars this weekend, with the Jewish state hosting two high-profile games.

On Saturday, the English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspurs take on AS Roma of Italy in a pre-season friendly at the Sammy Offer Stadium in Haifa.

The game kicks off at 9:30 p.m. and is expected to be sold out with both teams traditionally associated with their Jewish fan base.

Beyond the Jewish connection, the game has been highly anticipated as the first meeting of Roma coach Jose Mourinho with his former club Tottenham, who fired him just over a year ago.

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He has also had frequent run-ins with Tottenham’s current manager Antonio Conte.

But Conte indicated that the animosity was behind them.

“We have a mutual respect and our histories in football speak for us. Now everything is good and tomorrow for sure there will be a hug between us,” Conte told a press conference in Tel Aviv ahead of the game.

He also hailed the warm welcome from the Israeli fans.

“It was amazing for us to receive such a warm welcome yesterday at the hotel from all of our fans. Also to sing happy birthday to Harry Kane because yesterday was his birthday,” he said.

“A lot of positive things and we like to find this enthusiasm. Now we are looking forward to playing on Saturday,” the Italian said.

Roma, meanwhile, took time out from their training to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem, with several of their stars taking the time to pray and place a note at the holy site.

Tottenham, the north London club, has long been associated with its Jewish supporters to the extent that its fans — both Jewish and non-Jewish — eventually adopted the insulting epithet Yid thrown at them by rivals, and became known as “the Yids” and the “Yid Army.”

Meanwhile, Roma fans have been subject to abuse from their cross-town rivals Lazio, who have frequently directed antisemitic and Holocaust-related abuse at the Roma fans, most recently posting images of Anne Frank in a Roma jersey alongside slogans such as “Roma fans are Jews.”

AS Roma’s Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho (C) arrives alongside his players for a visit of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on July 29, 2022, on the eve of their friendly football match with Tottenham Hotspur in the Israeli city of Haifa. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Top soccer teams routinely travel overseas for pre-season games, both to practice against top opposition, but also to boost their commercial appeal by connecting to distant fans. However, games in Israel are rare.

On Sunday, Israelis will be able to see global superstars Lionel Messi and Neymar, when French team Paris Saint-Germain take on Nantes at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv.

This is Israel’s second year hosting the Trophée des Champions, or the French Super Cup, after the season opener was brought to the Jewish state last year by billionaire Sylvan Adams.

Messi last visited Israel in 2019 with Argentina’s national team for an exhibition match against Uruguay, but missed last year’s game, as did Brazilian Neymar.

Argentinian football player Lionel Messi at the friendly football match between Argentina and Uruguay at the Bloomfield stadium in Tel Aviv on November 18, 2019. (Flash90)

While the Argentine and the Brazilain will be among the stars taking place, Israeli fans will be deprived of a glimpse of the world’s current most expensive player Kylian Mbappé, who is suspended for picking up too many yellow cards at the end of last season.

PSG have said they will be taking the game seriously after losing last year’s game in a surprise 1-0 defeat to Lille.

“We want this trophy to start the season in the best conditions. We know how important it is,” their Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma said ahead of the game.

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