Argentina's national soccer team has pulled out of an exhibition match with Israel scheduled for this weekend in Jerusalem, but Israel's minister of culture and sport said it was in response to security threats against the team's star rather than political pressure from Palestinian groups.
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“The game was canceled for one reason only: threats to the life of the star Messi," Miri Regev said Wednesday night at a press conference in Tel Aviv, referencing Argentine team captain Lionel Messi.
“The terror threats against him and his family overwhelmed the world soccer star,” Regev added.
On Thursday, Reuters reported that Israel had demanded that soccer's governing body, FIFA, investigate the threats against Messi and his family.
But Saturday's match, which was sold out, is off. Fans had been clamoring to see Messi play in West Jerusalem's Teddy Kollek Stadium. Argentina's soccer federation canceled the game Tuesday, and on Wednesday, apologized to those who had bought tickets.
“Unfortunately, we cannot come to Israel in the current situation,” Claudio Tapia, the president of the federation, said at a press conference in Barcelona, where the team has been training ahead of the World Cup.
“It’s nothing against the Israeli community, it’s nothing against the Jewish community,” Tapia said. He added that he hoped "everyone will take this decision as a contribution to peace."
Tapia added that he had to prioritize the safety and health of his team ahead of the start of next week's tournament.
The exhibition game was initially scheduled to be played in Haifa, in the north of Israel, but last month was moved to Jerusalem, a move pushed by the culture minister, Regev. But it wasn't about the location or politics, she said.
“It’s not Jerusalem or Haifa,” Regev said at the same press conference. “It’s not BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement]. These are real threats.”
“The Argentinians never objected to holding the match in Jerusalem," she added. "It was even borne of Messi’s will to visit Jerusalem, kiss the Western Wall, and make it to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher."
The Palestinian Football Association opposed the game from the start, and blamed Regev for the move to Jerusalem and what they called the ensuing "disaster."
Messi is wildly popular in the occupied Palestinian territories and in Gaza, where kids parade around in his jerseys like so many other places in the world. The match was hotly opposed by Palestinians, and a pro-Palestinian group protested outside of the Barcelona practice facility earlier this week.
Palestinian Football Association president Jibril Rajoub penned a letter, obtained by Israeli newspaper Haaretz and others, to the Argentine Football Association last week, encouraging the team to call off the game.
On Wednesday, Rajoub thanked the Argentines for "following their conscience." Rajoub spoke at a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah next to a picture of himself and Messi with the caption "From Palestine, thank you Messi."
"I think Messi and the rest of the Argentine team players respected their principles, and I thank them. They followed their conscience. Messi would have been the first to lose if the game had taken place," Rajoub said.
He added: "Miri Regev is responsible for this disaster if that’s what you’re calling it. Stop supporting the racist, fascist regime led by Miri Regev and Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]. I was hoping that the Israeli side would keep politics away from sports. So I’m saying to the Israeli Right and to Regev: This is what you deserve.”
For her part, Regev responded: "I say, this was no disaster. We’ll continue hosting international events and won’t let this prevent us from showing pride and happiness in our country."