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Israel wants FIFA to probe 'threats' that led Argentina to cancel Jerusalem soccer match

Israel has demanded that soccer's governing body investigate what it said were threats against Argentina players that forced them to cancel a match in Jerusalem, including Palestinian calls to burn replica shirts of Lionel Messi if he played.

Status of city at heart of dispute over South American team's final pre-World Cup warm-up match

The head of the Palestinian Football Association Jibril Rajoub speaks during a news conference over the decision by Argentina's national football team to cancel a pre-World Cup friendly with Israel, in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Wednesday. (Majdi Mohammed/Associated Press)

Israel has demanded that soccer's governing body investigate what it said were threats against Argentina players that forced them to cancel a match in Jerusalem, including Palestinian calls to burn replica shirts of Lionel Messi if he played.

Palestinian soccer officials praised Argentina and their captain Messi on Wednesday for calling off the friendly match against Israel, which Israeli officials had moved to Jerusalem from Israel's coastal city of Haifa.

Palestinian soccer officials say they would have had no issue if the match had been played in Haifa, but it should not have been moved to Jerusalem.

"The Israelis tried to use Messi and those stars from Argentina," Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub told a news conference on Wednesday in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"I would like to thank them and appreciate their decision, which I think was on the right track."

At the news conference, there was a placard saying "From Palestine, thank you Messi" under a big photo of Rajoub posing with Barcelona's star player.

It was a change of tone from Rajoub, who on Sunday had called for Palestinians to burn replica Messi shirts and photos if the Argentinian team played in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called Argentine President Mauricio Macri and urged him to intervene, to no avail.

"It's unfortunate the soccer knights of Argentina did not withstand the pressure of the Israeli-hating inciters, whose only goal is to harm our basic right to self-defence and bring about the destruction of Israel," Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said of the cancellation.

Polarized reaction

Israel's Football Association accused the Palestinians of crossing a "red line" by inciting anger toward the Argentinian players in order to scupper the match. It said it would complain to soccer world governing body FIFA about Rajoub's comments, which it described as "physical and brutal threats."

The Palestinians opposed the decision to hold the match in Jerusalem, accusing Israel of seeking to use the event, and especially the presence of global star Messi, to underpin Israel's claim to the Holy City.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital, while Palestinians want the eastern part of the city as capital of their own state. Most countries say Jerusalem's status must be resolved in future peace talks, although President Donald Trump reversed U.S. policy last year and recognized the city as the capital of Israel.

Israel has largely fended off an international grassroots boycott campaign, with only a small number of artists and organizations shunning the country. Argentina's snubbing would appear to be the boycott movement's greatest achievement thus far.

Those advocating for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel say it is a way to promote Palestinian rights through non-violent means. Israel says the campaign goes beyond Israeli occupation of lands claimed by the Palestinians and masks a deeper aim of delegitimizing or even destroying the country. It has formed a government ministry whose primary mission is to combat the boycott movement.

With files from The Associated Press

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