Jerusalem (AFP) – Argentina’s final friendly match before the World Cup was cancelled on Tuesday, after getting embroiled in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Here are some questions and answers about the cancellation:
– What happened? –
Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi and his teammates had been due to play their final World Cup warm-up game in Jerusalem, much to the joy of Israel and the anger of Palestinians, who also see the disputed city as their capital.
To attract Messi, Paulo Dybala or Angel Di Maria, the Israeli organisers had put $2-3 million on the table, according to Israeli and Argentinian media.
The game was meant to be held in Haifa but was moved to Jerusalem by Israel’s right-wing sports minister, Miri Regev, sparking Palestinian protests.
It came a month after the United States officially moved its embassy to Jerusalem and recognised the city as Israel’s capital, breaking with decades of international consensus that the future of the city should be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians.
In the end the Argentinians, perhaps realising they had underestimated the strength of feeling involved in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, decided to pull out of the game.
– Why was it cancelled? –
The president of the Argentine Football Association, Claudio Tapia, spoke of the “threats” to which the Argentinians had been subjected, without more specifics.
Ahead of the game, his Palestinian counterpart Jibril Rajoub urged Messi not to play, calling on fans to burn his shirt if he did.
On Tuesday activists brandished a jersey of the Argentinian team smeared with red paint meant to signify blood in front of their training ground in Barcelona.
Regev alleged these bloody jerseys were death threats against Messi, his family and other members of the Argentinian team.
But activists said the blood signified the more than 120 Palestinians killed by Israel since protests broke out on March 30.
Argentinian Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie also said the “viral campaign” against the game and alleged threats weighed on the decision.
The Palestinian Football Association said Argentina cancelled as they realised Israel was using them for political benefit.
The Israeli media pointed out Messi had already been threatened by the Islamic State group in the past, which never dissuaded him from playing.
– Sporting impact –
The Israel game was to be Argentina’s final friendly pre-World Cup match, with their first tournament game against Iceland on June 16 in Group D.
Commentators have questioned the value of the game, with the team having to travel to play a team ranked 98th in the world. The Palestinians are ranked 96th.
However, many teams prepared for the World Cup are preparing by playing lowly teams.
And with the team being based in Spain currently, going to Russia via Israel would not have been a major obstacle.
– Act of superstition? –
The Israeli sports minister Regev, strongly criticised for moving the match to Jerusalem, said Wednesday that it was Messi who wanted it there.
According to Israeli media reports, Messi’s father allegedly pushed for the match to be in Jerusalem to allow his son to go to the holy sites, as the illustrious Diego Maradona did in 1986 in a pre-World Cup friendly. Argentina went on to win that tournament.
There was no Argentinian confirmation.