On Tuesday, Argentina’s national federation (the AFA) canceled a friendly match against Israel slated to be played in Jerusalem, following protests from Palestinian human rights advocates and threats directed at Lionel Messi and the team.
The decision divided Argentinians, who have the seventh largest Jewish community in the world, with more than 181,000 inhabitants, but where the Palestinian cause also has support. While some celebrated the cancellation of the game with the hashtag #argentinanova, others condemned it as a victory for fear and terrorism. What both sides seem to agree on is that the AFA was in way over their head in this situation.
Buenos Aires: Protests at @Argentina Football Association call for "friendly" match with Israel to be canceled. There's #NothingFriendly about Israel shooting Palestinian footballers! #ArgentinaNoVayas [in Spanish] https://t.co/5r8lIuFdzl pic.twitter.com/V25HpI06qr
— PACBI (@PACBI) June 4, 2018
The game was inconvenient from the very beginning; it was programmed more for political and economic reasons than to provide good prep for the team. Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina’s coach, stated in a March press conference that he didn’t want to make the trip, but the AFA forced him. As a sparring partner, Israel doesn’t have the skill needed to test Argentina’s players, and the trip represented an extra stress they didn’t need.
According to the Spanish daily El País, the game couldn’t be played until the sun set to observe the sabbath, which would have forced the team to travel late at night to Tel Aviv in order to make their flight to Russia. There were also political demands, like a visit from Messi to the Western Wall, and insistence from the Israeli government to play the match in Jerusalem instead of Haifa, which was the spark that ignited the Palestinian protests. According to ESPN, the Jerusalem neighborhood selected for the match, Malha, was formerly a Palestinian village which was destroyed 70 years ago during the war that established Israel.
When activists protested at the team’s training grounds in Barcelona, the players became even more uncomfortable with a trip they didn’t want to take in the first place and decided to tell Federation to call it off. “I think in the end we did the right thing,” said Argentinian forward Gonzalo Higuaín to ESPN. “Obviously health and common sense come first, so we think the right thing is to not go.” In the end, the AFA couldn’t find another rival and the Albiceleste was left without its last preparation game before Russia.
"Lo correcto era no ir a Israel" El Pipa se refirió a la suspensión del amistoso ante Israel.https://t.co/Q1h4pw8V2a
— DiegoCora_ESPN (@diegocora_ESPN) June 5, 2018
The controversy represents just one of the AFA’s recent blunders. On Tuesday, they found themselves under fire after the Vatican announced that Argentinians had cancelled a meeting with the Pope scheduled for today. That announcement didn’t sit well with the players either, according to local media.
Last month, the AFA was in the eye of the hurricane for distributing a manual to seduce Russian women, as part of a course on Russian culture and language offered to journalists, players and executives who are planning to attend the World Cup. The AFA apologized and said those pages were included by mistake.
These episodes have added more worries to a team that already has a lot of pressure on their shoulders and has reduced the already low approval of the federation among supporters.