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argentina FOOTBALL MATCH CANCELLED

AFA thrusts national team into Middle East politics with cancellation of Israel friendly

Anger in Israel after football association 'suspends' Saturday's match in Jerusalem, citing 'threats and provocations' aimed at Lionel Messi.

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AFA President Claudio Tapia.
AFA President Claudio Tapia. Foto:VIDEO CAPTURE

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The Argentine Football Association (AFA) finds itself at the centre of a self-inflicted political storm, after cancelling Saturday's sold-out friendly match against Israel in Jerusalem just a handful of days before it was scheduled to take place.

The news broke late last night after sources inside AFA confirmed the match scheduled to be played at the Teddy Kollek stadium had been pulled. The Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires quickly confirmed the "suspension."

"The Embassy of Israel regrets to communicate the suspension of the match between Israel and Argentina," a statement said, referring to "threats and provocations" against national team captain and Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.

The match, scheduled as a warm-up fixture ahead of the World Cup in Russia, has been the subject of repeated protests by pro-Palestinian groups in recent weeks. The head of the Palestinian football association, Jibril Rajoub, had previously urged the cancellation of the match and had called on Arab fans to burn posters of Messi if he played in the match.

Speaking this morning in Barcelona, where the Albiceleste are currently based ahead of next week's World Cup, AFA President Claudio 'Chiqui' Tapia said the decision was "a contribution to world peace."

"We have taken the decision not to travel to Israel to play the friendly. We apologise to all the Argentines who live in the Israeli community and who bought tickets. Also to the boys who were going to be part of the actions that contribute to peace. It is nothing against the Israeli community," he added.

Tapia said AFA had taken the decision as a result of "threats received in the last hours" and said the organisation had a responsibility is "to fight for the physical integrity of the whole delegation."

Anger

The decision to "suspend" the game set for June 9 drew immediate reactions in the Middle East.  As Palestinians celebrated the decision, Israeli media and politicians expressed anger at the decision. 

"It's a shame that Argentina's footballing nobility did not withstand the pressure from Israeli-hating inciters," right-wing Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman wrote on Twitter Wednesday. He said the sole aim of opponents of the Jerusalem game was "to strike at our basic right to self-defence and to bring about the destruction of Israel."

Israeli efforts to push back and ensure the game went all the way to the top, even sparking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into action. Israeli news site Ynet reported that he called his Argentine counterpart, President Mauricio Macri, and urged him to intervene personally. In the end, those efforts were unsuccessful. Officials at the Argentine president's office declined to comment on the issue.

The Israel Football Association said Wednesday it will file a complaint to FIFA ,accusing its Palestinian counterpart of pressuring Argentina's players and staff and inciting "football terror."

"We are confronting a football terror from the Palestinian Football Association and its president," said Rotem Kamer, vice-president of the Israeli FA.

He also alleged the families of players were threatened, without providing any evidence.

"We are seeing it as crossing a red line and we cannot accept it. We are going to send an official complaint to FIFA and the disciplinary committee to take action."

Hotly opposed

The sold-out game in Jerusalem has been hotly opposed by Palestinians, who claim the eastern part of the city, annexed by Israel, as the capital of their future state. The international friendly on Saturday was originally meant to be played in the city of Haifa, but it was later shifted to Jerusalem, fuelling Palestinian opposition. The status of the holy city has come even more sharply into focus over the past year since US President Donald Trump recognised it as Israel's capital and ordered the US Embassy in Tel Aviv be moved to Jerusalem, which Israel considers to be its "indivisible" capital. 

The Palestinian Football Association welcomed the scrapping of the game, insisting sport should not "be a tool for politicians and for political extortion."

"What happened...is a red card from everybody to the Israelis," Rajoub said at a press conference, sitting next to a sign reading "From Palestine thank you Messi." 

Although the stadium that was slated to host the match is in west Jerusalem, Rajoub had complained that it is situated in a neighbourhood built on the site of a former Palestinian village destroyed during the war surrounding Israel's creation in 1948. Rajoub has long urged FIFA to expel Israel from the international football federation, citing Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinian soccer players and because Israel maintains teams in West Bank settlements. 

The cancellation came hours after pro-Palestinian activists staged a demonstration in front of the sports complex in Barcelona where Argentina is preparing ahead of the World Cup. Some waved the national team's white-and sky-blue striped shirt stained with red paint resembling blood. 

Iraeli daily Yisrael Hayom, considered close to Prime Minister Netanyahu, expressed ire with its front-page headline: "They surrendered to terrorism: The game against Argentina has been cancelled."

The decision to suspend the match on safety grounds may also have been influenced by deadly violence along the Israeli-Gaza border. More than 115 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 3,700 more wounded during near-weekly protests along the Israeli border, according to Palestinian health officials. The vast majority of casualties have been unarmed.

"In the end, they [AFA] have done right thing, and this is behind us," Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuaín told ESPN. "Health and common sense come first. We felt that it wasn't right to go."

'Not willing'

Speaking prior to the decision, Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie said that he believed the Albiceleste's players had been reluctant to travel to Israel for the match.

"As far as I know, the players of the national team were not willing to play the game," Faurie said. 

The decision to suspend the match will also have a financial impact for AFA, which has routinely agreed to fixtures across the world that have drawn in large amounts of cash. Press outlets in both Argentina and Israel had reported that AFA – an organisation that has repeatedly faced accusations of financial impropriety and shady behaviour – was supposed to receive a payment of between US$2-3 million if Messi played in the match. 

National team coach Jorge Sampaoli last week aired misgivings about having his players make the trip to Israel, noting he preferred to remain in Barcelona, where the team is holding its pre-World Cup training camp.

"From a sporting point of view, I would have preferred to play in Barcelona," Sampaoli said. 

The World Cup kicks off in Russia on June 14, with Argentina's first game in Group D against Iceland taking place two days later. The Albiceleste then play Croatia on June 21 and Nigeria on June 26.

It is unclear whether Argentina will play another warm-up, or if the national team will head to Moscow ahead of schedule.

Reports last night suggested low-ranked teams such as Liechtenstein and San Marino had been approached as possible opponents for what would be a hastily arranged replacement fixture.

Focus

Spokespeople for AFA and the national team said the players wanted to put the row behind them.

"Argentina is seven days from the World Cup. We want to focus on what is really important and which is before us," a federation spokesman said at the team's training camp.

Outside, William Jensen, 34, had come to the training ground to cheer on the squad. He said he welcomed the decision.

"It is good that football does not hide the conflict between Palestine and Israel. Argentina can organise a match here in Barcelona against any other team," he said.

Roberto Piparola, a 50-year-old Argentine who lives in Barcelona, shared this view.

"With all the indignation it aroused, I prefer that we take care of the players, that they don't go to a conflict zone," he said.

- TIMES/AFP/AP

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