President Shimon Peres set the tone on Sunday at a reception he hosted for FC Barcelona when he lauded Lionel Messi and his soccer team as “messengers of peace,” noting that their “Peace Tour” had coincided with the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Soccer “creates a horizon of hope for all children,” the president said at his residence in Jerusalem.

“Barca is more than just a club. Over the years you achieved the highest level of football,” Peres said at his residence in the capital.

“But more than that, Barca became a message of solidarity, of friendship, of caring for the weak. You became messengers of peace.”

Through the Peres Center for Peace, Israeli and Palestinian children play together and train together, even in times of tension, he said.

“Your visit to the Holy Land is a dream come true for Israeli and Palestinian children,” the president continued. “Israeli and Palestinian children dream of two goals: scoring the winning goal at Camp Nou [Barcelona’s stadium in Catalonia] and the great goal of peace.”

Referring to some of Barcelona’s most popular players, Peres said: “Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and the whole team can teach us and the Palestinians to play tiki-taka so that we can score the winning goal we all hope for – the great dream of peace.”

The packed audience, filled with sports personalities and reporters, laughed because tikitaka is a soccer style characterized by short, quick passes. Barca is famous for it, but the Middle East peace process is hardly known for its rapid pace.

Netanyahu picked up the ball quickly from Peres, drawing a parallel between politics and sport in his address to the Barcelona players.

The message conveyed by Barcelona is that there are common ties between people, said the prime minister, who happily admitted that like millions of others around the world, he is a Barcelona fan.

“I watch you all the time,” he said. “We both play on the international field – only you get paid more than I do. And you also have common goals. What you usually want to do is score against your rivals, but also protect the home base, your goal.... If you win, everyone shares in the victory.

“Here is my great hope,” Netanyahu said.

“My hope is to see good football games, to have peace and security and to have 1 percent of your fan base.”

If just 1 percent of the 300 million fans Barca has around the world visit Israel, Netanyahu said, “that would help our economy and it would help peace as well.”

Netanyahu almost stole the show from FC Barcelona with his display of soccer skills.

Toward the end of the proceedings, moderated by commentator and former Israeli soccer star Bonni Ginzburg – Barcelona FC president Sandro Rosell presented Peres and Netanyahu with signed soccer balls and Barcelona Football Club jerseys emblazoned with the words “Peace Tour” and the club’s lucky number 13.

Netanyahu inspected the ball, passing it from one hand to the other, then expertly kicked it toward one of his aides on the other side of the reception hall.

Rosell spoke for the entire team when he said that the target of the Peace Tour was children, because Barca was the most popular foreign team among both Israelis and Palestinians.

For the sake of the region’s children, Rosell said, he hoped that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks started in Washington recently would bear fruit.

“We all pray that these negotiations will end in a good manner,” he said. “We know that our coming here is a drop in the ocean, but for us, this drop is very important, and we will deliver any drop that we can to Israel and the Palestinians to make the peace happen.”

The packed audience at the President’s Residence cheered Rosell when, on behalf of Barcelona, he expressed his love for Israel.

“What we really want is... to be your friends for life,” he declared.

The occasion was used by Education Minister Shai Piron to launch his “The Other Is Me’ campaign via the Treaty of Tolerance that he signed along with Peres, Netanyahu and Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat.

Piron said he hoped the Barca Peace Tour would promote peace among Israelis as well as with Israel’s neighbors.

If Israel aims to become a nation of excellence, he said, it must eradicate violence, racism and discrimination. His wish was that the treaty, which calls for the elimination of these negative factors and for the promotion and upholding of mutual respect, social justice, minority rights, civil rights and the right of others to be different, is due to be signed by one million young people who are the future adults and leaders of Israel.

The Barcelona Peace Tour visit, which went through a nine-month gestation period before reaching fruition, caused considerable excitement among Palestinian and Israeli fans.

Media interest was abnormally high.

“There are more media people here than came for [US President Barack] Obama,” exclaimed a staff member at the President’s Residence.

As Messi left the residence with his team, the 26-year-old Argentinean star forward gave a thumbs-up from the back seat on his bus to the dozens of children on summer vacation waiting outside with their parents, some of them wearing Messi shirts.

“Messi, Messi!” they screamed in delight.

Earlier in the day, members of the Barcelona team donned kippot and placed notes in the Western Wall before posing for a group photograph with Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.

“I described how important the Wall is for the Jewish people, spiritually and historically,” Rabinowitz told The Jerusalem Post. “The whole Barcelona team was very excited by the visit. I saw Messi put a note in the wall, but I don’t know what he wrote on it.”

Tourism Minister Uzi Landau met the team at the Western Wall and gave a Goodwill Ambassador for Israel certificate to Rosell.

“I present you with this certificate with gratitude and in the hope that you will share your experiences about the real Israel with family and friends on your return home,” Landau said. “The Tourism Ministry sees great value in the visit of the Barcelona Football Club in encouraging tourism to Israel. Football is an international language and it is enough that millions of Barcelona fans around the world will see photos and video of their team visiting the Western Wall, places of entertainment and other tourism sites in Israel in order to promote tourism to Israel.”

Barcelona held a soccer clinic for Israeli children on Sunday, met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank on Saturday, and ran soccer drills with Palestinian children.

Noa Amouyal and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.

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