TEL AVIV – Amid calls from Israel demanding soccer’s governing body FIFA investigate threats against Argentinian players, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed concern that the South American country’s “disappointing” decision to cancel its friendly soccer match against Israel could set a precedent.
“I hope this will not affect other areas,” he said to reporters in London. “We must prepare for the possibility that all kinds of pressure will be exerted.”
The match, which was sold out, was scrapped following an intense Palestinian campaign that included images of the Argentinian team’s jersey stained with red paint to symbolize Palestinian blood. The team’s players received death threats warning them against coming to Israel to play.
The head of the Palestinian soccer association, Jibril Rajoub, on Sunday claimed Israel had turned the match into a “political tool.” He called on Arab soccer fans to burn posters of Argentina’s captain Lionel Messi if the game went ahead. Rajoub is a former terrorist who has served time in Israeli jails and routinely glorifies terror and refers to Jews as “Satan.”
Rajoub thanked the team for cancelling the game.
“The Israelis tried to use Messi and those stars from Argentina, and I would like to thank them and appreciate their decision, which I think was on the right track,” Rajoub told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The news conference had a placard with a large image of Rajoub posing with Messi accompanied by the declaration, “From Palestine, thank you Messi.”
Critics had blamed Israel’s Sport and Culture Minister Miri Regev for pushing for the game to be moved from Haifa to Jerusalem, which was seen as a contentious move following the recent controversy surrounding the city with President Donald Trump’s declaration recognizing it as Israel’s capital and the subsequent opening of the U.S. embassy there.
Regev countered by saying, “The Argentinians did not object to having the game in Jerusalem.”
“Threats to Lionel Messi’s life overwhelmed the sport. … It’s terror.”
“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 added.
Netanyahu also declined to blame Regev, telling reporters that “it was natural to request to transfer the game to Jerusalem.”
Netanyahu had tried to convince Argentine President Mauricio Macri to intervene but Macri said it was not a “political decision.”
The Israel Football Association (IFA) charged the Palestinians with crossing a “red line” by flaming the fans of hatred towards the Argentinian players.
“(Rajoub’s) aim was to harm our country through soccer,” IFA Chairman Ofer Eini said.
“There is an issue of personal threats against players. If a politician publicly calls to burn a shirt, somebody could take it a step further. I don’t think that the people who run world soccer can ignore this,” he said.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said the campaign to force Argentina into cancelling was led by a “pack of anti-Semitic terrorist supporters.”
“It’s unfortunate the soccer knights of Argentina did not withstand the pressure of the Israeli-hating inciters, whose only goal is to harm our basic right to self-defense and bring about the destruction of Israel,” said Liberman. “We will not yield before a pack of anti-Semitic terrorist supporters.”