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Why Did the Argentine National Team Cancel its Friendly Match With Israel?

By | [email protected] | June 6, 2018 11:51am

Why Did the Argentine National Team Cancel its Friendly Match With Israel?
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Eight days from the beginning of the FIFA World Cup, the Argentine national team keeps making the news, but for issues that have nothing to do with football. Just on Wednesday, the Vatican had to withdraw an announcement regarding a visit of the Selección to Pope Francis in Rome. And hours later, news surfaced that the friendly match it was set to play against its Israeli counterpart on June 9th had been cancelled.

After almost a day of silence, Argentine Football Association president Claudio “Chiqui” Tapia held a brief press conference to justify the decision. “I just want to tell you that yesterday, the decision was made to not play the match with Israel. I want to apologize to all Argentines who live in Israel, to all the Israelis who bought tickets, and the children who profess different religions who were going to partake in the actions that were going to be taken as a contribution to peace. The message intended to convey is that football is no more than an universal sport that transcends borders and has to be understood as that, and has nothing to do with violence” he started.

“What we lived in the past seventy two hours, the actions, the threats, have led us to make the decision. I am responsible for protecting the health and physical integrity of the delegation, and because of that I made the decision. We’ve got nothing against Israel or the Israeli community; on the contrary. So, I would like everyone to take this decision I made as a contribution to world peace,” he added. And no, that last part was not a joke.

The only one who had publicly spoken before was striker Gonzalo Higuaín, who said that “Obviously, common sense comes first, so we believe not going is [the right thing to do].” But the interpretations about what common sense means, regardless of the official explanation from today, vary widely. To make it easier, we’ll recap of all the events that led to this situation, and go through the official statements and insights of specialized media to achieve a clear picture of what is going on.

The event caused controversy since its conception. This is not new, uncommon, nor does it have anything to do with the Argentine team specifically. Numerous sporting events in which Israeli athletes have partaken are marked by episodes of the kind. For example, athletes from countries that oppose its policies – and its very existence as a nation – oftentimes withdraw from competitions to avoid engaging with their Israeli counterparts.

But this episode involved the Argentine national team. And the relevance of the event, plus the added value the participation of the most famous footballer in the world, on top of the more than delicate – to put it mildly – political situation playing out in the region since the Trump administration’s decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, were all factors for a storm to ensue.

The measures of protests from advocates of Palestine demanding Argentina refrain from playing began with the very confirmation of the match, and increased exponentially as the date loomed large. Three days ago, the president of the Palestinian Football Federation, Jibril Rajoub, personally called Messi not to travel and “be the mask” for a country he argued is “the face of racism.” Rajoub also called for Arab and Muslim fans of the sport to burn shirts and images of Messi if he participated in the match in Jerusalem.

However, neither that demonstration nor all the other previous ones seemed to change the decision of effectively playing – that and the fact that the contracts had already been signed, and the Argentine Football Association had already been paid roughly US $2,000,000 for the match. Until yesterday, when the event that seems to have been the breaking point took place. A group of around 20 people showed up at the Selección‘s training session with faux-bloodied jerseys and urged them to not play, naming each one of the players through a megaphone.

Photo via Reuters

Photo via Reuters

According to La Nación, the incident upset Messi. Hours later, the team’s most influential players met with AFA President Tapia and told him they would not play.

The news led officials from the Israeli government to scramble to find a way to revert the decision. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau called President Mauricio Macri in an attempt to get him to intercede and get the match back on track; he even offered moving the match to the city of Haifa, but it was in vain.

The Israeli officials’ reactions to the cancellation were mixed. While some put the focus on the pressure from the advocates for the Palestinian cause and the unrest it caused on the players – particularly due to the threats to Messi – others outright rejected the decision.

“The threats directed at Lionel Messi, that logically…”

“…elicited the solidarity of his peers, and the fear of going through with the friendly are not alien to the [Israeli] population’s daily lives, as their athletes themselves have often been subjected to violence and attacks. The friendship between…”

“…Argentina and the State of Israel, which is close to turning 70 years old, is not conditioned to a football match. The democratic country and the plural public (comprised of Jews, Muslims, and Christians) always eagerly awaits the possibility of welcoming Argentine athletes,” reads the press release issued by the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.

In an interview with Radio Mitre today, Israeli Ambassador to Argentina Ilan Sztulman said that even though the relationship between the countries will not change, the event was an “extremely sad situation” that “looks bad.” “Messi and Argentina are idols in our eyes. Football is a sport made to build bridges, not destroy them,” he added.

Sztulman went on to say that “the reason that was communicated to us was not political, as the team does not have issues with the State of Israel.” “The players were just fearful,” added the ambassador, who nonetheless assured Israel is an “extremely safe country” and noted that heads of state have visited it without any problems.

Sztulman. Photo via Infobae

Sztulman. Photo via Infobae

“Where are there no conflicts? There are conflicts all over the world, and football and sports contribute to changing this phenomenon of wars between peoples. Russia is in the middle of a conflict over Crimea, and the Argentine national team is going to play there,” he added.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman echoed the argument, regretting that “the Argentine football elite was unable to resist the pressures from those who preach hate to Israel and whose only goal is violating Israel’s right to self-defense, and destroy Israel.”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin [remember the Prime Minister is the head of state], in contrast, expressed his great concern about “the politicization of the Argentine national team.” “Even in the toughest times we have done all we could to leave non-sporting matters off the pitch, and it is a shame that the Argentine team was not able to do it this time,” he added.

And thus, surely unwillingly, the national team was caught in the middle of one of the moment’s most sensitive conflicts in global politics. Just ten days from its debut in the World Cup, the only thing not being discussed when the word Selección comes up in the news, is football.