Argentina has called off a pre-World Cup exhibition match with Israel following political pressure and claims of threats towards players, sparking outrage from Israeli officials.
Argentina’s players decided to pull out of the game, which was scheduled to take place in Jerusalem on Saturday, “in solidarity” with superstar teammate Lionel Messi, Argentinian President Mauricio Macri told CNN en Español on Wednesday.
Palestinian officials were outraged by the decision to hold the match in the contested city. On Sunday, Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub launched a campaign against the Argentine Football Association (AFA) – and specifically Messi – and called on people to burn T-shirts of the soccer player.
“The AFA’s acceptance to play with Israel in Jerusalem have reminded us all of how Israel uses sports as a tool to whitewash its actions,” Rajoub said in a statement Sunday.
It was unclear if the Palestinian campaign prompted Messi to quit the fixture, and the star has not publicly commented on the matter. CNN has contacted Messi for comment.
Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain called the decision “the right thing” in an interview on ESPN.
“We left it behind us. Good health and common sense come first and we think the right thing was not to go,” Higuain said.
An AFA official defended Argentina’s decision to suspend the match as a “positive” development Wednesday.
“I find it positive that the match between Argentina and Israel was suspended – it was the right thing to do, it was not worth it,” Hugo Moyano, Second Vice President of Argentina’s Football Association (AFA) said in an interview with Argentina’s Radio 10.
“What happens in these places where so many people are killed cannot be accepted by any human being. The families of the players were suffering,” Moyano added.
On Wednesday, the Israeli Football Association (IFA) laid the blame for the cancellation squarely on the shoulders of Rajoub.
“The Israel Football Association views with severity the physical and brutal threats that crossed every red line made by the head of the Palestinian Association, Jibril Rajoub, and will do everything in its power in the world of football institutions to Make Rajoub and the Palestinian FA accountable,” the IFA said in a statement.
During a news conference in Ramallah on Wednesday, Rajoub said, “I don’t think it’s a political victory – it’s a sports achievement.” He was standing next to a banner that read: “From Palestine, Thank you Messi.”
Later, Rajoub told CNN the fault lay with Israel. “The Israelis mixed politics with sport and this is why Argentina canceled the match,” Rajoub said.
When the fixture was first announced, a possible venue was the Israeli city of Haifa, but an official involved in promoting the match told CNN the Israeli government made clear it wanted the game to take place in Jerusalem.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin expressed concern over the “politicization” of the issue on Wednesday.
“This is indeed a sad morning for the supporters, amongst them some of my grandchildren, but there are values that are bigger even than Messi. The politicization that is apparent on the Argentinian side worries me a lot,” Rivlin said.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman described it as “a pity” that Argentina’s players “could not stand up to the pressure that Israel-haters are inciting.”
“We will not give into these anti-Semitic supporters of terror,” he added.
CNN’s Abeer Salman, Elena Gyldenkerne and Sarah Sirgany also contributed to this report.