Lionel Messi and Argentina were scheduled to play their final pre–World Cup warm-up match on Saturday against Israel in Jerusalem, but the game was canceled late last night. Tensions escalated after Israeli authorities decided to move the game from Haifa to Jerusalem in order to, per Israeli Sports Minister Miri Regev, have Messi “kiss the Western Wall” and “shake hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Jerusalem is considered the capital of Palestine, and Israel’s recent efforts to consolidate control over the city and the United States’ decision to move their embassy to Jerusalem have sparked large protests. At one such protest in Gaza, which is in the midst of a rather avoidable humanitarian crisis, Israeli forces murdered over 60 people and wounded over 1,000. After Regev moved the game to Jerusalem, Palestinian FA leader Jibril Rajoub sent a letter to the Argentine FA urging them to pull out of the game. Rajoub also demanded that Messi “not serve as a means to beautify the fascist occupation’s image and its racist policy,” and asked for “everyone to burn their Messi shirts and pictures and renounce him.”
Protests outside of Argentina’s Barcelona training camp followed the move. Argentinian authorities say their players faced death threats, and striker Gonzalo Higuain said, “They’ve finally done the right thing.” Argentinian FA vice president Hugo Moyano said, “I think it’s a good thing that the match between Argentina and Israel was suspended. The right thing was done, it’s not worth it. The stuff that happens in those places, where they kill so many people, as a human being you can’t accept that in any way. The players’ families were suffering due to the threats.”
Netanyahu reportedly called Argentinian President Mauricio Macri himself in a last-ditch effort to get the game back on track, but Macri said he couldn’t influence the FA. Israeli authorities decried Rajoub’s “physical and brutal threats” and said they would complain to FIFA.