JERUSALEM (AP) — The sports-crazed nation of Israel was in uproar Wednesday over Argentina’s abrupt cancellation of a World Cup warmup match following pro-Palestinian protests, with some of the country’s leaders accusing Lionel Messi and his teammates of caving to terrorism.
Israel was eagerly awaiting the sold-out international friendly scheduled for Saturday night at Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium and the arrival of some of the world’s best players. Argentina is one of the most popular national teams among Israelis and fans had been scrambling to get a chance to see Messi in person.
But after a fierce Palestinian campaign, which included images of Argentina’s white and sky-blue striped jersey stained with red paint resembling blood and threats to burn Messi posters, Argentina’s football federation announced it was skipping the event.
Claudio Tapia, president of the Argentine Football Association, apologized for cancelling the match but said the safety of the players was at stake.
“What has happened in the last 72 hours, the actions, the threats that have occurred have led us to take the decision not to travel,” he said during a news conference in Barcelona, where the Argentine team is training prior to the start of the World Cup next week.
“(We) apologize to the Israeli community. It’s nothing against the Israeli community, the Jewish community and I would like everyone to take this decision as a contribution to world peace,” he said.
“In the end, they’ve done the 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.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Argentine President Mauricio Macri and urged him to intervene, to no avail. Later Wednesday, Israel’s Sports Ministry said a “negotiation” about the match was underway, perhaps in hopes of salvaging it, but gave no further details.
“It’s unfortunate the soccer knights of Argentina did not withstand the pressure of the Israeli-hating inciters, whose only goal is to harm our basic right to self-defense and bring about the destruction of Israel,” said Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. “We will not yield before a pack of anti-Semitic terrorist supporters.”
The head of the Palestinian football association, Jibril Rajoub, had called on Arab soccer fans to burn Messi posters and T-shirts if he participated. He has long tried to get soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, and the International Olympic Committee to impose sanctions against Israel.
Rajoub believes Israel should be punished for restricting movement of Palestinian players, and for forming teams in West Bank settlements. Rajoub had also objected to holding the match in Jerusalem, whose eastern sector the Palestinians claim as their capital.
Although the Kollek stadium is in west Jerusalem, it is located in a neighborhood built where a Palestinian village once stood before it was destroyed in the war surrounding Israel’s independence in 1948.
Following the move, he held a press conference in Ramallah featuring a picture of him with Messi and a sign reading: “From Palestine, thank you Messi.”
Rajoub had accused Israel of playing politics with the game, by moving it from its original location in Haifa to Jerusalem, and by trying to link it to celebrations surrounding Israel’s 70th anniversary.
He called it a victory for “ethics and values” of sports. “They tried to use sport as a tool for political ends, and for this I think, they failed,” Rajoub said.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said it was a sad morning for Israeli sports fans, including his own grandchildren. “But there are values that are greater than even Messi. The politicization of the Argentinean move worries me greatly,” he said.
Opposition figures, however, accused Israel’s headline-seeking sports minister Miri Regev of bringing on the politicization of the sporting event by insisting on moving the game from Haifa to contested Jerusalem and by trying to orchestrate a politicized photo-op with Messi. Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the area in a move that is not internationally recognized. Israel considers the entire city to be its capital, while the Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
Regev rejected the backlash at a press conference Wednesday evening saying “there is no bigger lie” than claims her decision to hold the match in Jerusalem aided in its cancellation. She said the Argentinians had not objected and that Messi himself had wanted to visit sacred Christian and Jewish sites in the holy city.
Regev said the match was canceled following “threats by terror elements sent to Messi and his family and to other players.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog called the snub a “spectacular own goal” by Regev that delivered victory to boycotters of the Jewish State. Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay called for a police investigation into Regev’s “corrupt conduct.”
“We just absorbed a shot in the face. This is not just sports,” he tweeted. “This, unfortunately, could start an international tsunami.”
Regev claimed that “terrorist” groups had made threats against Argentina’s players and their families, sending them images of dead children, though she gave no further evidence. She accused members of the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, of backing the boycott advocates.
“Unfortunately, we have Trojan Horses in the Knesset who give headwind to terrorism,” she said.
The Palestinian militant Islamic group Hamas praised Argentina for canceling the game. Spokesman Husam Badran said Hamas “applauds” the move and reiterated its position that rejects “all forms of normalization” with the Jewish state.
A senior official at the Argentine Football Federation said the national team decided to call off the match with Israel after receiving threats from Hamas.
The official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns, did not provide evidence or details of the alleged threats.
A Hamas official mocked reports that the group had threatened the players, calling them unrealistic, and saying they don’t deserve a comment. The Hamas official was not authorized to comment in the issue and also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction and has ruled Gaza with an iron fist since it took over the territory in 2007. Israel and the United States consider it a terror organization for its bombings, shooting and rocket attacks targeting civilians.
Israel has largely fended off the boycott campaign with only a small number of artists and organizations shunning the country.
Argentina’s snubbing would appear to be the boycott movement’s greatest achievement thus far.
The grassroots movement advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel in what supporters say is a way to promote Palestinian rights through nonviolent means. Israel says the campaign goes beyond Israeli occupation of lands claimed by the Palestinians and masks a deeper aim of delegitimizing or even destroying the country. It has formed a government ministry whose primary mission is to combat the boycott movement.
The Argentinean move, which featured on the front pages of all the major Israeli dailies, raised fears that it could serve as a template for future boycotts of Jerusalem, most notably next year’s scheduled hosting of the popular Eurovision song contest.
The Palestinians celebrated the cancellation as a major triumph.
Israeli organizers said an offer had been floated to have the game played in Barcelona instead, but it was highly unlikely.
“I think sports should never be involved with politics,” said Shahaf Ashraga, a fan in Jerusalem. “It just makes me sad to think that the game has to be canceled because of the Palestinian pressure.”
Argentina opens its Group D campaign in Russia against Iceland on June 16. It then plays Croatia on June 21 and Nigeria on June 26. It is unclear whether Argentina will play another warmup, or if it will arrive in Moscow ahead of schedule.