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'Red card' for Israel: Messi's Argentina cancel Jerusalem friendly

Palestinian football chief hails victory for 'values, morals and sport', while Argentine star Gonzalo Higuain says 'Not going was the right thing to do'
Messi visited Jerusalem with his club side Barcelona during a tour of Israel and Palestine in 2013 (Reuters)

A football match between Argentina and Israel in Jerusalem has been cancelled, following intense pressure by Palestinian football officials and international campaigners heightened by last month's killing by Israeli forces of dozens of protesters in Gaza.

Israel's embassy in Buenos Aires confirmed the international friendly was off as reports of the cancellation spread through the Argentine media on Tuesday night.

"The Israeli embassy is sad to announce the suspension of the match between the Israel and Argentina national teams scheduled for Saturday 9 June, as a warm-up game for the Russia World Cup," the statement said.

It said the decision was due to "threats and provocations" against Lionel Messi, Argentina's captain and star player, but gave no specific details.

Translation: The Israeli Embassy regrets to announce the suspension of the match between the national teams of Israel and Argentina which was scheduled for next Saturday, 9 June, as a warmup game before the World Cup in Russia.

A PLO spokesperson also told Middle East Eye that the match had been cancelled.

The decision was welcomed by Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain, one of the country's highest-profile players, in an interview with the ESPN television network on Tuesday.

'They've finally done the right thing. Rationale and health come before everything else. We think it's best not go to Israel'

- Gonzalo Higuain, Argentinian striker

"They've finally done the right thing," Higuain said. "Rationale and health come before everything else. We think it's best not go to Israel."

The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) also welcomed the decision, and thanked Messi, a five-times world footballer of the year, who had become the focus of campaigners' efforts to stop the match, and his teammates for the cancellation. 

"Values, morals and sport have secured a victory today and a red card was raised at Israel through the cancellation of the game," Jibril Rajoub, the president of the PFA, said in a statement.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), the campaign group which had driven the push to persuade Argentina to withdraw, also thanked the Argentine squad in a tweet which said: "Apartheid will not be entertained."

Israel's Haaretz newspaper cited reports in Argentine media which said that the match was cancelled because of pressure by Palestinians and requests not to go to Israel by leading players, including Messi.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called Argentine President Mauricio Macri late on Tuesday in an effort to rescue the match, Haaretz also reported, citing sources in Netanyahu's office.

Final game before World Cup

The match in Jerusalem's Teddy Kollek Stadium, which is built on the site of a former Palestinian village and is close to the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank, was to be Argentina’s final game before they kick off their World Cup campaign against Iceland on 16 June in Russia.

Rajoub is due to make an official announcement about the cancellation at a press conference on Wednesday, the PLO spokesman told MEE.

On Tuesday, the PFA issued a statement asking for the match to be indefinitely suspended.

“By accepting to play a friendly match with Israel in the occupied city of Jerusalem, the Argentinian Football Association risks flagging itself ‘ineligible’ and ‘unworthy’ of hosting the World Cup in 2030, should it intend to win the bid,” the statement read.

A football fan plays in front of a Lionel Messi portrait (Reuters)
“The fact that this match is scheduled to happen in this particular time and location, following the international condemnation, and the uproar in the Arab and Muslim world at the US administration’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, will undoubtedly send a message that the stars of Argentina are lending legitimacy to the illegal actions of an occupation that systematically abuses the human rights of around five million Palestinians struggling under its yoke,” it added.

The campaign to stop the match was backed by Palestinian members of Israel's Knesset parliament, with MK Yousef Jabareen meeting Argentina’s ambassador to Israel to ask for the game to be cancelled.

"I stressed that the game, in the wake of the killing of the Palestinians in Gaza and the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, sends a dangerous message to the Israeli government that the world ignores its gross human rights violations. [Lionel] Messi cannot turn his back on the Palestinian victims," said Jabareen, according to an Israel National News report.

Rajoub had also sent a letter to Argentina’s government asking that the match not include Barcelona star Messi, one of the world's most celebrated footballers.

“This match has become a political tool. The Israeli government is trying to give it political significance by insisting it be held in Jerusalem,” Rajoub said.

“Messi is a symbol of peace and love. We ask him not to participate in laundering the crimes of the occupation,” he added.

The campaign also featured a video message directed at Messi by Mohammed Khalil, a young Palestinian footballer who was shot in the knee by an Israeli sniper during "Great March of Return" protests in Gaza in April.

"I call on the Argentinian 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 match with Israel, which is occupying our land," said Khalil. 

Lieberman: We will not yield 

Israeli government ministers said that a campaign of "violent incitement" by Palestinian officials and campaigners had led to the match being cancelled.

"What happened here, truthfully, is less about the boycott. There's a good friendship with Argentina, terrific relations. Due to violent incitement and threats by Jibril Rajoub and the whole bloodied jerseys charade, fear rose for the personal safety and the players started to fret over being physically assaulted in Jerusalem," Gilad Erdan, the public security minister, told Israeli radio on Wednesday.

Avigdor Lieberman, the defence minister, criticised the move on Twitter:

Translation: "It's too bad the football players of Argentina did not withstand the pressure of the Israeli-hating inciters, whose only goal is to impinge 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."

Argentina has made four previous pre-World Cup stopovers in Israel since 1986. Most countries do not recognise either Israeli or Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem and have their embassies to Israel in the Tel Aviv area.

However, three Latin American countries - Guatemala, Honduras and Paraguay, which borders Argentina - followed the US lead in moving their embassies last month.

Keepy-uppies with Peres

Messi previously visited Jerusalem in 2013 as part of a tour of Israel and Palestine by his club side, Barcelona.

He and other players were photographed at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's illegally occupied Old City.

Messi (R) juggles a football with then-Israeli president Shimon Peres in 2013 (Reuters)
They also met Netanyahu, and Messi was photographed playing 'keepy-uppies' - juggling a football - with then-Israel president Shimon Peres.

The club held "training camps for peace" for children in Tel Aviv, and in Bethlehem and Hebron in the occupied West Bank.

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