The head of the Palestinian football federation is calling on Arab and Muslim sports fans to boycott Argentina – and to burn photos and T-shirts of Lionel Messi.
Jibril Rajoub made the call after a demonstration in front of the Argentinian representative office in Ramallah, where he asked the Argentine Football Assocation (AFA) and the national government to cancel next week's upcoming friendly match against Israel on June 9. Israel's football federation says Messi is expected to play in the match.
The match is scheduled to be played Saturday at the 31,733-person capacity Teddy stadium in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Malha, which is situated on the site of a former Palestinian village destroyed during the war that established Israel 70 years ago.
"Messi. Don't come. Don't whitewash the face of racism," Rajoub said.
"This match has become a political tool,” he added. “The Israeli government is trying to give it political significance by insisting it be held in Jerusalem.”
Tensions are running high in the Middle East. Palestinians are outraged at US President Donald Trump's decision last December to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, breaking with decades of policy, and move his country's Embassy there.
The Embassy opened on May 14, fanning Palestinian anger and intensifying protests on the Gaza border, with at least 61 Gazans killed in clashes with Israeli forces that day. Palestinians claim the eastern part of Jerusalem, annexed by Israel, as the capital of their future state. The Jewish state considers the entire city its own "indivisible" capital.
Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association, has long called for sanctions to be levelled against Israel, which has six league teams based in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Palestinian authorities say Israel is in breach of FIFA regulations which state that a country cannot play matches on the territory of another association without permission.
“Messi is a symbol of peace and love,” Rajoub said. “We ask him not to participate in laundering the crimes of the occupation.”
Messi, he added, “has tens of millions of fans in the Arab and Muslim countries... we ask everyone to burn their shirts which bear his name and posters [with his image].”
The Arab League has also urged Argentina to cancel the pre-World Cup friendly. The Cairo-based organisation’s issued a statement saying “Israel is using the match for political purposes that have nothing to do with sports and is harming the rights of Palestinians guaranteed by international conventions.”
Some reports in Israeli media have suggested the Argentine Football Association (AFA) may be receiving as much as US$3 million for the game, although the Israeli Football Association has denied that is the case.
National team coach Jorge Sampaoli has also complained about the match's location. The Albiceleste are currently in Barcelona training, but speaking after last week's 4-0 win over Haiti, Sampaoli said he wasn't "the one who decides when we play and who we play."
Sampaoli stressed he did not want to get drawn into any comment on the tension between Israelis and Palestinians. But he said: "From a sporting point of view, I would have preferred to play in Barcelona. But that's the way it is, we have to travel on the day before the match, play Israel in Israel and then from there go on to Russia.
"That is the schedule that the AFA have given us."
Argentina, who were the beaten finalists in 2014, play their first World Cup match against Iceland on June 16. They will also face Nigeria and Croatia in Group D.
Israel finished fourth in Group 7 in qualifying for the World Cup, behind Spain, Italy and Albania. They last qualified for the World Cup in 1970.
In the past, Argentina have played Israel several times in friendly matches, usually before the World Cup, suffering a 1-2 defeat in 1998 but crushing the Israelis 7-2 in 1990 with Maradona at the helm.