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Messi and Argentina will not face Israel in Jerusalem friendly - match cancelled after protests

Lionel Messi will not be leading Argentina onto the pitch for a World Cup warm-up against Israel after the game was called off following protests by pro-Palestinian groups.

A source at Argentina’s football federation confirmed the cancellation of the international friendly scheduled to be played on Saturday at Teddy Kollek Stadium in Jerusalem.

The head of the Palestinian football association, Jibril Rajoub, had urged Argentina to cancel the match and had called on Arab football fans to burn posters of Argentina captain Lionel Messi if he participated.

Jibril Rajoub speaks at a press conference in front of the Argentinian representative office in the West Bank city of Ramallah (Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP)

Although the stadium that was slated to host the match is in west Jerusalem, Mr Rajoub had complained that it is in a neighbourhood built on the site of a former Palestinian village destroyed during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.

He has long urged Fifa to expel Israel from the international football federation, citing Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinian players and because Israel maintains teams in West Bank settlements.

The cancellation came hours after pro-Palestinian activists staged a demonstration in front of the sports complex in Barcelona where Argentina are preparing ahead of the World Cup.

Some waved the blue and white striped kit of Argentina’s national team stained with red paint resembling blood.

“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.”

The Argentina squad in training in Barcelona (Manu Fernandez/AP)

Argentina open their Group D campaign in Russia against Iceland on June 16. They then play Croatia on June 21 and Nigeria on June 26.

It is unclear whether Argentina will play another warm-up, or arrive in Moscow ahead of schedule.

There was no immediate reaction on the cancellation from Israel, but Israeli news site Ynet reported that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called Argentine President Mauricio Macri and urged him to intervene.

The cancellation was seen as a victory for the global Palestinian anti-Israel campaign. The grassroots movement advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel in what supporters say is a way to promote Palestinian rights through non-violent means.

But Israel says the campaign goes beyond Israeli occupation of lands claimed by the Palestinians and masks a deeper aim of delegitimising or even destroying the country. It has formed a government ministry whose primary mission is to combat the boycott movement.

The movement said the Argentinian team had responded to “creative campaigning” denouncing what it called Israel’s “sports-washing of its crimes against Palestinians”.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed the area in a move not recognised by the international community. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

The Palestinians have also been outraged by President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his decision to move the US Embassy to the city.

The Argentine decision may also have been influenced by deadly violence along the Israeli-Gaza border.

More than 115 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 3,700 wounded during near-weekly protests along the Israeli border, according to Palestinian health officials. The vast majority have been unarmed.

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