At the start of Argentina’s final full week of World Cup preparations it appeared that the biggest problem the squad faced was an ill-advised bathtime selfie. But Cristian Ansaldi’s frolics in the tub were soon overshadowed by a rather more serious issue, as the Selección became inexplicably involved in a geopolitical crisis that brought criticism raining down from all corners.
The trigger for this incredible scandal was the last friendly scheduled for Jorge Sampaoli’s men before beginning their adventures in Russia. Argentina were set to take on Israel today in Jerusalem; in diplomatic terms about as sensitive a setting one could possibly imagine after Donald Trump’s decision to move the United States’ Embassy in Israel to the disputed city and a subsequent bloody crackdown of protests spearheaded by Palestinian groups. Ultimately not even the promise of US$2 million for the cashstrapped AFA could persuade the likes of Lionel Messi to board the plane to the middle east, leading to the match being scrapped on Tuesday – just five days beforehand.
Argentina’s withdrawal was ostensibly related to alleged threats received by Messi and the rest of the Albiceleste team from groups dead opposed to their being used in Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations. AFA president Claudio Tapia even had the opportunity to present himself as a minor hero: “My decision is to preserve the integrity of our Argentina delegation, wishing always, above all, to achieve world peace,” the chief said in a press conference statement that would not have looked out of place in a Miss Universe competition. The Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires mirrored Tapia’s sentiments, placing responsibility for the cancellation on “threats and provocations received by Lionel Messi.”
While it is true that the captain and Barcelona star did receive pressure not to travel, however – the head of the Palestine FA called on fans to burn his shirt in protests at the game – it is unlikely that Messi or any of the team felt any fears for their safety, or in any case more than usual for world-famous footballers in the public eye. Perhaps more telling in the star’s consideration was the public relations nightmare implicit in attending a game that was overtly political in nature, and even more so given Israel’s insistence on switching the venue from Haifa to controversial Jerusalem. If there was any doubt over the importance the match held in Israel, it was soon dispelled in the aftermath of the decision to cancel, when Mauricio Macri fielded two phone calls from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanding the team reconsider.
Inside the Argentina squad, who were unanimous in their wish to pull out of the friendly, the overall feeling is one of relief, even if it means that their sole match experience prior to facing Iceland in the World Cup opener was a glorified training session against Haiti. As early as last week Sampaoli had expressed his own opposition to the trip, stating that “from a sporting point of view, I would have preferred to play in Barcelona.” Going into the World Cup with such limited playing time is clearly a calculated risk, but the stress of travelling to Israel and back for a game that offered little in terms of quality has been deemed a price too steep to pay.
Nevertheless, the whole debacle is an unnecessary distraction for a team that above all needs absolute focus to gel as a unit after a string of unimpressive performances. At a time where the only questions on Argentina’s mind should be whether Willy Caballero or Franco Armani get the nod to start in goal at the World Cup, or if Javier Mascherano still has the legs to anchor the Albiceleste midfield, the nation is instead debating the complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its wider geopolitical implications. It is a situation that could well have jumped straight out of the pen of Roberto Fontanarrossa or Osvaldo Soriano, a surreal twist of fate that proves once again that with Argentina’s unique administrators almost anything is possible.