Israel fears that the Argentine Football Association’s cancellation of a Jerusalem soccer match out of fear for the life of its star player Lionel Messi and his family, sets a dangerous precedent for future international events.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the cancellation was “disappointing and unfortunate.” He told reporters in London that he hoped “it would not affect other events.”
“We must prepare for the possibility that all kinds of pressure will be exerted,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu had asked Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri to intervene, but in the end, the final decision rested with Messi.
Argentina’s decision comes as Israel is battling a stiff Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign to prevent the Eurovision from holding its annual awards ceremony in Jerusalem in 2019. Israeli media reported that Eurovision officials have requested to hold the event in a non-divisive venue elsewhere in Israel
Palestinians charge that Israel has politicized international musical and sporting events to bolster is claims on Jerusalem as its capital.
The campaign against the soccer match in the 30,000-seat Teddy Kollek Stadium took a violent turn on Sunday, when Palestine Football Association head Jabril Rajoub called on supporters of Palestinian soccer to burn Messi’s shirt and picture if he comes to Jerusalem. Palestinian supporters held demonstrations in Argentina in which they held up shirts with Messi’s number painted red for blood.
Argentine Football Association president Claudio Tapia told reporters, “The actions, the threats that have taken place have led us to decide not to travel. My responsibility as president of AFA is to look after the health and physical integrity and safety of the entire delegation and in my role I made this decision.”
“I simply want to apologize to the Israeli community,” he said. “It’s not against the Israeli community or the Jewish community. On the contrary. I simply think that from now on, I would like everyone to see this decision as a contribution to world peace.”
The game has initially been scheduled to be held in Haifa but the venue was changed two weeks ago. Left-wing Israeli politicians blamed Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev for holding the game in Jerusalem.
She defended herself by stating that it was Netanyahu who had initially asked for the Jerusalem venue and that Messi himself and wanted to come to the city to pray at the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in advance of his team’s world cup game later this month.
Regev said that aside from Netanyahu’s efforts, behind-the-scenes talks were held with Argentina by Israel Football Association chairman Ofer Eini and entrepreneur Danny Ben-Naim ,who had organized the game.
“The decision behind the cancellation is because of one reason only, the threats by terror elements sent to Messi, his family and to other players in the Argentina team,” Regev said.
Any claims that she was responsible for the game’s cancellation or the choice of a Jerusalem venue were a “lie,” she charged.
Those who held up bloody shirts are akin to “terrorists” charged Regev and she called the kind of threats leveled against Messi “sports terrorism” designed to deter and intimidate athletes.
She likened it to the murder of Israeli Athletes at the 1972 Olympic games.
“Today Jabril Rajoub continues with this terrorism,” she said.
“This is not a story about Jerusalem or Haifa” or even about Israel, said Regev. The Argentinean team did not withstand the threats against it and if no steps are taken to stop these kinds of actions, “terrorism will become a phenomenon that will threaten world sports."
Eini sent a letter to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) demanding that it investigate Rajoub for instigating violence against Messi
“There is an issue of personal threats against players, a personal threat that – you know how it goes. If a politician publicly calls to burn a shirt, there will always be somebody who will take it a step further. I don’t think that the people who run world soccer can ignore this.”
Rajoub said he welcomed the AFA decision and its refusal to allow Israel to exploit its soccer players for political gains.
“When the match was originally scheduled to take place in Haifa, the Palestine Football Association did not take any action. However, it was only after the Israeli government, through Minister Miri Regev, put pressure to move the match to Jerusalem that we decided that this was unacceptable, violated the FIFA statutes and action had to be taken,” Rajoub said.
Regev wanted the team to visit “occupied Jerusalem’s Old City and to boost Israeli propaganda efforts. This is totally unacceptable and we call upon FIFA to take note and action of this new attempt by the Israeli government to politicize a football match. It’s becoming evident that the Israeli Football Association has become a political tool of the Israeli government,” Rajoub said.
“The move was also clearly political given the context of President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 478 that supports Israeli attempts at normalizing the illegal annexation of Jerusalem to Israel,” he said.
IFA spokesman Shlomi Barzel said that Rajoub was disingenuous because he had spent years trying to oust Israel from FIFA and that his objections to the game had nothing to do with Jerusalem.
The Argentine team played in Jerusalem in 1998 and did not garner the same kind of reaction.Reuters contributed to this report.
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