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‘I would have preferred to play in Barcelona’ not in Israel, says Argentina coach

Argentina football team [Wikimedia CH/Flickr]

There is mounting pressure on the Argentine Football Association to cancel its match against Israel scheduled to take place this Saturday on the site of a Palestinian village in Jerusalem destroyed by Jewish paramilitary forces in the 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians – half the Palestinian population – were ethnically cleansed from their lands to make way for the creation of the state of Israel.

Yesterday, the Arab League urged Argentina to cancel the pre-World Cup friendly. The Cairo-based organisation’s department for Palestine and occupied territories made the remarks in a statement reported by the New Arab.

“Israel is using the match for political purposes that have nothing to do with sports and is harming the rights of Palestinians guaranteed by international conventions,” the statement said.

It added that Israel was attempting to “mislead Argentinians into believing that Jerusalem is united for the Jewish people”. The Israeli FA has denied a suggestion that Argentina is being paid $3 million to play, according to the Jewish Chronicle.

The head of the Palestinian Football Federation, Jibril Rajoub also made a personal appeal to Lionel Messi, urging the football superstar not to play in Israel. Rajoub called for a demonstration in front of the Argentinian representative office in Ramallah, where he asked Argentina to cancel the match and encouraged fans to burn Argentinian football jerseys in protest.

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“This match has become a political tool,” Rajoub said. “The Israeli government is trying to give it political significance by insisting it be held in Jerusalem,” continued Rajoub.  Messi, he added, “has tens of millions of fans in the Arab and Muslim countries… we ask everyone to burn their shirts which bear his name and posters [with his image].”

The match was initially scheduled to be played in Tel Aviv, but organisers changed the venue after the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem against the wishes of the international community. Argentina was one of the country’s that abstained from last December’s UN vote denouncing Trump’s decision; a sign that relations between the two countries has moved from hostility to friendship.

The match also comes after Israeli troops killed at least 123 Palestinians and more than 10,000 have been injured since mass demonstrations began on 30 March. Many were killed by Israeli snipers during the inauguration of the embassy move.

Argentina’s decision to play in Israel was strongly condemned by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement even before the decision to play in Jerusalem had been announced. But the change in venue, which seems to be an attempt to legitimise Israeli annexation of Jerusalem, amidst the mass killing of Palestinians protesting against the US decision, is universally seen as callous and insensitive on the part of the Argentine Football Association.

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It’s not clear how much influence the actual team has on the decision but the manager of the team,  Jorge Sampaoli, expressed disappointment at having to play in Israel saying: “I would have preferred to play in Barcelona,” where the national team is currently based for the pre-tournament training.

However, Sampaoli did not make any comment about the political situation, instead simply saying “that’s the way it is, we have to travel on the day before the match, play Israel in Israel and then from there go on to Russia.”

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