Blood, fury and soccer

The message was clear: Are you sure you want to play? This could be costly.

LIONEL MESSI celebrates scoring a second goal in a recent game. (photo credit: REUTERS)
LIONEL MESSI celebrates scoring a second goal in a recent game.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As a longtime sports journalist and a publisher of a sports magazine, I think I understand the politics of sport. What I don’t understand is the terrorism in sport. Or rather, the fact that it can be indulged: “If you play in this game I will kill you because of my political viewpoint. I will target your family if you play. We will incite violence against you and urge a vendetta if you play.” These weren’t just empty threats. They were also coupled with action. Outside Barcelona’s training ground where the Argentineans were preparing for the World Cup, bloodied Argentinean jerseys were found hanging. The message was clear: Are you sure you want to play? This could be costly.
Naturally the Argentineans canceled.
So who came out on top?
If you’re intelligent, the play is glaringly obvious and the vision is stark. The approach of the Palestinians, with the license and encouragement of the head of the Palestinian soccer association himself, is that of a bunch of thugs in a lawless society. What just happened is a throwback to the likes of the notorious era of the Roman Empire. “Hey gladiator, die like a good boy or we’ll kill you.” Does any sane person still say, “Long live Rome and woe to the fallen Colosseum?”
But then again the media has a way of spinning it, indeed falsifying it, and intelligence in the face of a media barrage easily falls out the window. “Hey, maybe they got a point. How dare they play soccer in Israel?!”
Let’s do a quick fact search and take a reality check. What has Israel done wrong warranting the threat that if Argentina plays a friendly in Israel, the Argentinean players will be terrorized or worse?
It’s very complicated so please focus for this. Ready? Here it is: Israel protected its borders.
Huh? That’s it? that’s all? Yes. That’s it. Go watch the footage of what happened at the Israeli border fence where 120 Palestinians were killed in their attempt to infiltrate and storm Israel’s border (many of whom were Hamas terrorists as acknowledged by the terrorist organization itself). Oh, and no, contrary to the implicit nature of general media coverage and as they would have it portrayed, they weren’t coming to plant flowers or pretty the landscape. Their intent, aside from a calculated political points score, was to kill Jews, murder Israelis, plunge, pillage and destroy. There was nothing peaceful about their demonstration. It was a violent mob looking for blood.
Argentina had good reason to go to Israel before the World Cup. It was part of their preparation and was also considered for them a good omen. Argentina has made four previous pre-World Cup stopovers in Israel beginning in 1986 when they went on to lift the trophy in Mexico. Perhaps playing in Israel brought them blessing, and in what is likely Lionel Messi’s last World Cup and in the pursuit of the one trophy that has eluded him, every blessing counts.
In fact as a rabbi for two decades in South Africa, and as the son of a legendary Brazilian footballer and understanding the nature of the Latin culture and mind, I sensed the Argentinean team’s trip to Israel was important for them. So when Messi was in South Africa three weeks ago for the Barcelona match against South Africa champions Mamelodi Sundowns, played in honor of the Nelson Mandela Centenary Cup, I delivered a letter to Messi at his hotel. “I would be honored and delighted as a rabbi to extend my blessing to the Argentinean team when they are in Israel, for success in the coming World Cup.”
Now, no blessing of the land will be theirs as they journey to Russia for a grueling tournament. My blessing however, they do still have. They did not rescind the arrangement other than them being afraid for their lives and for that I cannot blame them.
It’s ironic. From celebrating a game for the iconic man of peace in the Nelson Mandela Centenary Cup, to being terrified for his and his families lives, seeing bloodsoaked shirts bearing his name on it – the contrast could surely not be more vivid and graphic for Messi.
So Romania played in Israel on March 24. They got lucky. They weren’t threatened, terrorized or given an ultimatum. The Scottish best watch out later this year. They’re due to play in Israel in a UEFA Nations League match. Though I think the Scots are a crazy bunch. They may counter-threaten the Palestinians and then we’ll have the Scots, Hamas, Israel and Fatah all involved.
Do you see what’s going on? It’s insane. When the head of the Palestinian soccer association stands up and says, “Burn Messi’s shirt and if he plays we will target him,” you have chaos and anarchy threatening the fabric of society and the ground of the worlds basic moral structure being tested and shaken.
“Play and you will be killed.” Do you hear that?
So I hope intelligence prevails. It is what separates us homo sapiens from the savage beasts of prey. It is this that will lead to recognizing and affirming what is acceptable and what is not and will, one would hope and expect, lead to speaking out and taking action. FIFA and UEFA need to act and penalize the Palestinians who made these comments in the strongest and most severe of terms. Voices from sporting bodies across the world need to issue statements of condemnation. We and the collective voice of humanity must speak out that these vile tactics sanctioned and fueled by the Palestinian Authority cannot and must not be tolerated in society. And certainly not on the sports field.
The writer is the publisher of the Jewish sports magazine Soul Sport He is based in Johannesburg. He previously served as rabbi and educator in the South Africa Jewish community for two decades. He is a community activist and runs a nonprofit that brings relief to the disadvantaged in South African society.