Argentina has canceled their final World Cup warm-up match against Israel, striker Gonzalo Higuain said on Tuesday, as political pressure grew ahead of Saturday’s scheduled fixture in Jerusalem.
“They’ve finally done the right thing,” Higuain said in an interview with ESPN, confirming reports the game had been canceled.
The Israeli Embassy in Argentina confirmed the cancellation on Twitter, saying it was saddened by the news following the threats directed at the players. The embassy expressed its hope that the players would come to Israel soon.
“The threats and provocations directed at Lionel Messi, which logically aroused the solidarity of his colleagues and fear of playing the friendly, are no strangers to the daily life of Israel’s civilian population whose sporting stars, to put it simply, have been on numerous occasions the targets of violence and attacks,” the embassy wrote.
“The friendship between Argentina and Israel, which will soon celebrate its 70th anniversary, is not about a football match. The democratic country and plural state (composed of Jews, Muslims and Christians), will always eagerly await the chance to receive one of the stars of Argentine sport.”
The match at Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium was to be Argentina’s last before they kick off their World Cup campaign in Russia on June 16.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Argentinian President Mauricio Macri on Tuesday night to ask him to persuade the team not to cancel their visit, but a diplomatic official said the chances of salvaging the fixture were very slim as Macri can’t force the players to come to Israel.
“Macri has some influence, but it’s their decision and they’re afraid to come in the current climate,” the official added. “Israel is still pressuring them to reverse the decision.”
In a second conversation Tuesday night, Macri told Netanyahu he had no influence on the matter.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev received updated from the game’s producer, Danny Ben Naim, on the efforts to reverse the Argentinean decision. The minister was informed that since Argentina had announced their arrival for a friendly with Israel, different terror organization had started sending messages to the players and their family members with explicit threats, as well as images and videos of children’s bodies.
Addressing claims that the Argentinean team refused to arrive because of the decision to move the game to Jerusalem, the sports minister said: “That’s nonsense which legitimizes terror and the BDS campaign. Unfortunately, we have trojan horses in the Knesset who supporting terror.”
The visit of twice world champions Argentina has attracted huge interest among Israeli fans, mainly because of Barcelona great Lionel Messi’s planned participation.
Palestinians celebrated the cancellation. In Gaza, people cheered and in Ramallah in the West Bank, the Palestinian Football Association issued a statement thanking Messi and his colleagues for cancelling the game.
“The Palestinian FA thanks Argentina’s players led by star Messi for refusing to be used to serve a non-sporting goal.”
Palestinian FA Chairman Jibril Rajoub said: “Values, morals and sport have secured a victory today and a red card was raised at Israel through the cancellation of the game.”
Rajoub called a news conference for Wednesday in Ramallah, which he will hold outside the Argentinian representative’s office. On Sunday, he called for Palestinians to burn replica shirts and pictures of Messi.
“I congratulate the Palestinians on the great sportive victory and on the serious blow to the occupation,” Abdel-Salem Haniyeh of the Palestinian Higher Council of Sport wrote on Facebook. “We thank all the liberals among the sports people and all those who stood by our side in the demand to cancel the game between Argentina and the occupation in Jerusalem.”
Rafael Araya Nasry, president of the Latin Confederation of Palestinian Institutions (COPLAC), said Messi and midfielder Javier Alejandro Mascherano personally insisted on canceling the friendly game. “We will never forget that. They are champions in humanity,” he tweeted. There are indications that the pressure to cancel the game came from coach Jorge Sampaoli as well.
The BDS movement issued the following statement: “We welcome news that Argentina’s ‘friendly’ football match with Israel has been canceled! The team responded to creative campaigning from fans around the world denouncing Israel’s sports-washing of its crimes against Palestinians.”
Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie confirmed that the footballers had been threatened. “As far as I know, the team’s players were unwilling to participate in the game,” he said. “The coach didn’t want any meeting either.”
He said one of the things that had influenced the players was “the campaign which became viral in the media, threats on players and their families and the blood-stained shirts.”
The stadium that was to host the match is in west Jerusalem. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city as the capital of a future state that will include the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
However, the status of Jerusalem is highly sensitive. The match was originally slated to be played in Haifa but Israeli authorities contributed funding for it to be moved to Jerusalem, irking Palestinians further following US President Donald Trump’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital. The US Embassy was moved there last month.
Argentine FA Vice President Hugo Moyano confirmed the game’s cancellation, saying: “It’s the right decision. It wasn’t worth it. So many people are being killed. As human beings, we can’t accept it. The players’ families suffered from the threats.
Addressing the US Embassy move to Jerusalem, he said: “Coming to Jerusalem at this time, when everyone is furious at Trump’s decision, is a very serious matter.”
The Culture and Sports Ministry paid NIS 2.7 million to move the game to Jerusalem, but the relocation eventually increased the pressure on the Argentinean players and led to the cancellation.
Gabbay calls for police probe against Regev
Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay slammed Culture and Sports Minister Regev following the cancellation. “This is, unfortunately, the possible beginning of an international tsunami,” he wrote. “And as for the sports minister’s corrupt conduct—from the torch-lighting ceremony through Times Square to Argentina—it requires a police investigation. This is our country, our taxes, our national dignity, and not her primaries machine.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog blasted the government: “A spectacular own goal for all the government’s speakers, who have been assuring us that ‘our diplomatic situation is outstanding.’ It’s very painful to see BDS celebrating. This is a miserable failure of the government, which is burying its head in the ground and failing to read reality.”
MK Yoel Razbozov (Yesh Atid), chairman of the Knesset’s Sports Lobby, slammed the Argentine FA. “It’s shameful that you gave in to Palestinian pressure. You violated the first rule of sports—keeping politics out of sports.”
MK Haim Jelin (Yesh Atid), who immigrated to Israel from Argentina as a child and served as head of the Eshkol Regional Council in the Gaza vicinity, criticized the decision to move the game from Haifa: “Jerusalem is ours, it’s Israel’s capital. We celebrated the moves of the US, Guatemalan and Paraguayan embassies there. The 70th anniversary celebrations belong to the entire State of Israel. They should have let Haifa host the game. This is very disappointing for the children of the Gaza vicinity, who were invited to the game. This day will be remembered as a failure for Israeli culture and sports.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman wrote on Twitter, “It’s a shame that the soccer knights from Argentina gave in to the pressure of the anti-Israel instigators, whose only goal was to violate our basic right to self-defense and lead to Israel’s destruction. We won’t give in to a group of terror-supporting anti-Semites.”
Argentina to Israel: Play against us in Barcelona
Early Wednesday, following the cancellation, the heads of the Argentine team suggested moving the friendly to Barcelona, where the players are holding training sessions ahead of the World Cup.
Ynet has learned that the Argentine Football Association delayed the official announcement on the cancellation in light of the compensation it would have to pay Israeli producer Danny Ben Naim for the cancellation: $2.2 million.
On Wednesday, after the Argentine FA officially announces its decision, the Israeli FA will have to decide whether to fly to Spain for the friendly. Another option that has been raised is that Argentina will arrive in Israel for the match after the World Cup, or that two games will be held—one in Israel and the other in Argentina or in a neutral country.
By Itamar Eichner, Shahar Hay and Nadav Zenziper, Ynet News
Reuters contributed to this report.