The Argentine national soccer team reneged on their scheduled World Cup warm-up match with Israel on Wednesday. The game – Argentina’s final bout before the team starts its World Cup campaign in Russia on June 16 – was set to take place June 9 at Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium.
Initially, Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain suggested during an ESPN television interview that his team cancelled the game over Israel’s recent response to the Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip. “They’ve finally done the right thing,” Higuain said, effectively confirming reports that the Argentine squad succumbed to mounting political pressure.
Yet the Israeli Embassy in Argentina issued a different reason for the “suspension” of the match. In a tweet today, it cited concerns over “threats and provocations” against Lionel Messi, the superstar footballer. “After threats were made on the life of Messi,” the embassy claimed, “logically, the other players showed solidarity with him and were afraid to take part.”
A month before the game, the pro-Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement urged the Argentines to cancel the match. Mohammed Khalil, a Palestinian footballer who took part in the campaign “call[ed] on the Argentine team and especially captain Lionel Messi—because he is very popular in Palestine, particularly in the Gaza Strip—to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and to boycott the scheduled game with Israel, which is occupying our land.”
Jibril Rajoub, chairman of the Palestinian football association in Ramallah, urged Palestinians to burn replica jerseys and images of Messi. Rajoub was quick to praise the decision to pull out of the planned match, suggesting that “values, morals and sport have secured a victory and a red card was raised at Israel through the cancellation of the game.”
Israeli politicians issued pointed responses, with Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman posting a Twitter message reading, “It’s a shame that Argentina’s football nobility did not withstand the pressure from Israel-hating inciters. We shall not surrender to a group of anti-Semites who support terror.”
When tickets for the game became available to the public on June 3, they sold out within 20 minutes, according to the Le’an agency, which oversaw sales. The company wrote on its website that nearly 100,000 fans had applied for 20,000 tickets, with prices varying from about US$12 for children to US$230 for a seat in the VIP section.
Pablo Duer, an Argentine journalist based in Israel, told The Media Line that “when the players signed up for the match, they were probably not aware of how political the situation could become. [Moreover], the media there was very concerned about the players’ safety…and the possibility of them facing a serious security risk.”
He further explained that recent images of rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel unnerved Argentines, many of whom are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. “When I was interviewed by Argentine media outlets,” Duer related, “they asked me: ‘So, what are the odds of the team being bombed in Jerusalem?’. I responded, ‘Nobody is going to bomb them. It is pretty clear what will happen: Israeli security will take care of things and everything will be fine.’”
He concluded by noting that “just a few days ago, the [Argentine] team was training in Barcelona and many protesters were present wearing Argentine soccer jerseys covered in blood to make their point. There was a violent, tense, and politically charged atmosphere that the team wanted to avoid.”
Saba Jarrar, a Palestinian sports expert at the Arab American University in the West Bank, contended that “while sports should make peace between people, thankfully the game was canceled because it is not just a game when politics are behind it.”
“It is a smart decision,” she elaborated to The Media Line, “because Palestinians have a solid relationship with the Argentine people and we surely hope that someday we can make peace through sports, but not now given the U.S.’ decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem. It is not a good time to play in Jerusalem, especially during Ramadan.”