JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH (Reuters) – Israel demanded soccer’s governing body investigate what it said were threats against Argentinian 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 its star 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 were held as planned in Haifa, but it should not have been moved to Jerusalem.
“The Israelis tried to use Messi and those stars from Argentina, and I would like to thank them and appreciate their decision, which I think was on the right track,” Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub told a news conference on Wednesday in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
At the news conference was a placard saying “From Palestine, thank you Messi” with Argentinian and Palestinian flags, under a big photo of Rajoub posing with the Barcelona ace.
It was a change of tone from Rajoub, who on Sunday had called for Palestinians to burn pictures of Messi and replicas of his shirt if he took the field in Jerusalem.
The Israel Football Association (IFA) accused the Palestinians of crossing a “red line” by inciting anger towards the Argentinian players in order to scupper the match.
“(Rajoub’s) aim was to harm our country through soccer,” IFA Chairman Ofer Eini said.
“There is an issue of personal threats against players. If a politician publicly calls to burn a shirt, somebody could take it a step further. I don’t think that the people who run world soccer can ignore this,” he said.
The Palestinians accused Israel of moving the match to Jerusalem to exploit the presence of Messi and other stars 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 left to be resolved in future peace talks, although U.S. President Donald Trump reversed American policy last year to recognise the city as capital of Israel.
Zeev Elkin, a senior Israeli cabinet minister, said on Army Radio that holding the match in Jerusalem was a matter of national pride. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in a statement “the politicisation of Argentina’s move is very worrying”.
Additional reporting by Rami Amichay in Tel Aviv,; Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Peter Graff