Israel is in uproar over Argentina’s abrupt cancellation of a World Cup warm-up match following pro-Palestinian protests, with some of the country’s leaders accusing Lionel Messi and his teammates of caving in 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 ahead of the World Cup in Russia.
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.
“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.”
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu called Argentine president Mauricio Macri and urged him to intervene, to no avail. Later, Israel’s sports ministry said a “negotiation” about the match was under way, perhaps in the hopes of salvaging it, but gave no further details.
Defence minister Avigdor Lieberman said: “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-defence and bring about the destruction of Israel.
“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.
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.”
Mr Rajoub called it a victory for “ethics and values” of sports. “They (Israel) tried to use sport as a tool for political ends, and for this I think, they failed.”
The head of Israel’s soccer association said the Palestinians had “crossed a red line” with the sudden cancellation.
Ofer Eini blamed Mr Rajoub for “doing all he can” to remove Israel from international football.