Messi ignores threats for Israel trip
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP):
Football superstar Lionel Messi finally arrived in sports-crazed Israel yesterday after a Palestinian protest campaign derailed his previous visit and the latest round of cross-border fighting in Gaza threatened to scare him off once again.
Messi and his Argentine teammates are in the Holy Land to play an international friendly against his Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez and the Uruguay national team. It’s a game that has been just as eagerly anticipated for its political ramifications as it has for its sporting star power.
Suarez and his teammates arrived on Saturday after a friendly match in Hungary, while Messi touched down yesterday after a direct flight from Saudi Arabia, where Argentina beat Brazil 1-0 in another friendly.
A year ago, Argentina abruptly cancelled a World Cup warm-up match in Jerusalem, saying they was concerned for the safety of their players. The decision followed protests in the West Bank and other countries amid outrage that Messi would play in Israel.
Those demonstrations included threats to burn Messi jerseys and brandished images of the Argentina national team’s jersey stained with red paint resembling blood.
As a result, FIFA, football’s governing body, banned Palestinian football federation president Jibril Rajoub for a year for “inciting hatred and violence” against Messi.
Today’s match was nearly nixed as well after last week’s two-day eruption of violence following Israel’s targeted killing of a Palestinian militant commander in Gaza. The Islamic Jihad militant group responded by firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, setting off warning sirens as far north as Tel Aviv – the site of today’s match. The fighting killed 34 Palestinians, including 15 civilians.
Both Argentina and Uruguay were reportedly on the verge of calling off their participation.
But they eventually decided to play after high-profile negotiations with Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-Israeli billionaire who is responsible for staging the match in Israel.
The Palestinian BDS group PACBI condemned today’s match, accusing Argentina and Uruguay of crossing the “Palestinian nonviolent picket line, allowing Israel to use the beautiful game to sports-wash its crimes against Palestinians ”.