A split screen of Israeli Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev and Lionel Messi.
(photo credit: MARC SELLEM + REUTERS)
Sport should not be politicized. Israel understandably voiced deep regret over Argentina’s decision to cancel its World Cup warm-up soccer match against Israel in Jerusalem set for Saturday.
The Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires tweeted that Argentina had made the decision after death threats were made against its superstar, Lionel Messi, and “other players showed solidarity with him.”
The move was not just a blow to Israel, though. It violates the very foundations of international sport, and what is now referred to as the “Olympic Spirit.”
An officially sanctioned Canadian program of the International Olympic Committee says its mission is “to build a peaceful and better world in the Olympic Spirit which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
It was this principle that Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub violated when he appealed to Messi earlier this week to cancel, urging Arab and Muslim fans to burn soccer shirts with his name on them if Argentina went ahead with the match.
Having said this, however, Israeli politicians are also guilty of politicizing the game, which had originally been scheduled to take place in Haifa. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev insisted that it be moved to Jerusalem, with Regev boasting that Messi and his teammates would have to visit the Western Wall and shake hers and Netanyahu’s hands in the Israeli capital. The game at the Teddy Kollek Stadium was to be Argentina’s final “friendly” warm-up before its World Cup kickoff in Russia on June 16.
The opposition was quick to slam Regev. Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich tweeted: “So much money, trickery and lies, a clumsy bear hug with added insane pressure that the game should be held in Jerusalem.
And to top it off, Regev mumbling in anger, ‘I want to see if Messi will not shake my hand as well as the hand of the prime minister. You will see, you will see.’” Further politicizing the issue, Netanyahu called Argentinian President Mauricio Macri to urge him to intervene, but was told the team “is hesitant to come to Israel because of all the pressure that has been placed on them,” according to an Israeli official.
Of course, the Palestinians had a field day. Former peace negotiator Saeb Erekat thanked Argentina for canceling, and said Regev should realize that “the international community will not yield to the Israeli government.” Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi declared: “This is a Palestinian victory, 1-0 in the 90th minute, all due to an own-goal from Minister Miri Regev.”
Yesh Atid MK Pnina Tamano-Shata spoke for ordinary Israelis as she lamented the cancellation, noting that many adults and children had bought tickets for the game or were looking forward to watching it on television. But she correctly added that it signaled a perturbing trend in Israel to politicize everything from state ceremonies to sport. “It began with the discussion over the Independence Day ceremony, continued with unending arguments regarding the next Eurovision contest and now the canceled game with the Argentinian team,” she said. “This is neither sport nor culture. It’s the ugliest form of politics.”
Politics, like racism and antisemitism, should be kicked out of sports. While we agree with Regev’s critics that she went too far in her demand that Messi and his mates play in Jerusalem. Argentina too should not have allowed politics or the threat of violence to sabotage its trip to the Holy Land.
The cancellation was a huge victory for the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel, a defeat for Israeli public diplomacy and a victory for terrorism, the likes of which Israel faces still today from the Gaza Strip.
Dafna Dekel sang in the 1992 Eurovision Song Contest, Zeh Rak Sport – “It’s only sport.” If countries bow to threats, terrorism and political campaigns, and can’t continue to compete with one another on the sports field, then the whole world – and not just Israel – is in trouble.