Argentina have called off their World Cup warm-up match with Israel following pressure from Palestinian football officials and international campaign groups, reports Telegraph.co.uk.
The friendly had been planned for Saturday in the contested city of Jerusalem, but the team announced they would not be taking part.The sold-out game was opposed by Palestinians, who claim the eastern part of the city, annexed by Israel, as the capital of their future state.
However, the Israeli embassy in Argentina blamed what it called “threats and provocations” against Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.
Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian football association, had encouraged fans to burn shirts bearing Messi’s name if he decided to play.
He said on Wednesday that the decision was a “red card from everyone to the Israelis”.
Messi has previously expressed support for the Palestinian cause. During the 2014 conflict, the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador shared on his Facebook a picture of an injured Palestinian child and pleaded for the violence to stop.
The Palestinian Football Federation - which had urged Messi not to take part - welcomed the scrapping of the game, insisting sport should not “be a tool for politicians and for political extortion”.The match comes weeks after Israeli forces shot dead at least 60 Palestinians protested on the Israel-Gaza border.
“In the end, they’ve done right thing, and this is behind us,” Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain told ESPN. “Health and common sense come first. We felt that it wasn’t right to go.”
The Palestinian football association welcomed the cancellation of the match and said sport will not be used as “a tool of political blackmail”.
Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie said before confirmation of the game’s cancellation that he believed his country’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.
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli last week aired misgivings about having to travel 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 cancellation means Argentina will not play another friendly match before their opening World Cup tie against Iceland on 16 June. They then plays Croatia on June 21 and Nigeria on June 26. It is unclear whether Argentina will play another warm-up, or if they will arrive to Moscow ahead of schedule.