When Politics Strikes The ‘Beautiful Game’
Why Argentina chose not to participate in a friendly match in Israel
The Argentinian national soccer team reneged on scheduled World Cup warm-up match with Israel on Wednesday. The game—Argentina’s final bout before the team starts its World Cup campaign in Russia on June 16—was set to take place this Saturday at Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium.
Initially, Argentinian striker Gonzalo Higuain suggested during an ESPN television interview that his team canceled the game over Israel’s recent response to the Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip. “They’ve finally done the right thing,” Higuain said, effectively confirming reports that the Argentine squad succumbed to mounting political pressure.
Yet, the Israeli Embassy in Argentina issued a different reason for the “suspension” of the match. In a tweet on Wednesday, it cited concerns over “threats and provocations” against Lionel Messi, the superstar footballer. “After threats were made on the life of Messi,” the mission claimed, “logically, the other players showed solidarity with him and were afraid to take part.”
A month before the game, the pro-Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement urged the Argentinians to cancel the match. Mohammed Khalil, a Palestinian footballer who took part in the campaign “call[ed] 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 game with Israel, which is occupying our land.”
Jibril Rajoub, Chairman of the Palestinian Football Association in Ramallah, urged Palestinians to burn replica jerseys and images of Messi. Rajoub was thus quick to praise the decision to pull out of the planned match, suggesting that “values, morals and sport have secured a victory and a red card was raised at Israel through the cancellation of the game.”
Israeli politicians issued pointed responses, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman posting a Twitter message reading, “It’s a shame that Argentina’s footballing nobility did not withstand the pressure from Israel-hating inciters. We shall not surrender to a group of anti-Semites who support terror.”
When tickets for the game became available to the public on June 3, they sold out within 20 minutes, according to the Le’an agency, which oversaw sales. The company wrote on its website that nearly 100,000 fans had applied for 20,000 tickets, with prices varying from about $12 for children to $230 for a seat in the “VIP” section.
Pablo Duer, an Argentinian journalist based in Israel, told The Media Line that “when the players signed up for the match, they were probably not aware of how political the situation could become. [Moreover], the media there was very concerned about the players’ safety…and the possibility of them facing a serious security risk.”
He further explained that recent images of rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel unnerved Argentinians, many of whom are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. “When I was interviewed by Argentinian media outlets,” Duer related, “they asked me: ‘So, what are the odds of the team being bombed in Jerusalem?’ I responded, ‘Nobody is going to bomb them. It is pretty clear what will happen: Israeli security will take care of things and everything will be fine.’”
He concluded by noting that “just a few days ago, the [Argentine] team was training in Barcelona and present were many protesters wearing Argentinian soccer jerseys covered in blood to make their point. There was a violent, tense, and politically charged atmosphere that the team wanted to avoid.”
Dr. Saba Jarrar, a Palestinian sports expert at the Arab American University in the West Bank, contended that “while sports should make peace between peoples, thankfully the game was canceled because it is not just a game when politics are behind it.
“It is a smart decision,” she elaborated to The Media Line, “because Palestinians have good relations with the Argentinian people and we surely hope that someday we can make peace through sports, but not now given the U.S.’ decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem. It is not a good time to play in Jerusalem, especially during Ramadan.”
When asked about the intimidation of the Argentinian squad, Jarrar stressed that “Palestinians surely wouldn’t harm the players [and that] maybe Israel tried to paint this picture.” As regards the burning of Messi jerseys, she said that these were purely emotional responses and did not constitute real threats of violence.