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Messi in Israel? Just an Israeli tycoon settling old scores

Lionel Messi (10) of Argentina in action against Hordur Magnusson (18) of Iceland during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Group D match between Argentina and Iceland at Spartak Stadium on June 16, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. ( Sefa Karacan - Anadolu Agency )
Lionel Messi (10) of Argentina in action against Hordur Magnusson (18) of Iceland during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Group D match between Argentina and Iceland at Spartak Stadium on 16 June, 2018 in Moscow, Russia [Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency]

This week, reports emerged that Argentinian football star Lionel Messi is slated to play in Israel in November. Israel TV (ILTV) speculated that the match – due to be played between Messi’s home side Barcelona and Athlético Madrid – would be confirmed sometime in the next few days. ILTV’s Joy Gavillon explained that:

the interested parties are very close to reaching an agreement. Two officials from the Comtec group – that is the group in charge of organising the event – Danny Benaim, CEO of Comtec and his partner flew to Spain to meet with the father of Lionel Messi and leaders from both clubs in order to sign the official agreement in the next few days.

One could be forgiven for being overcome with déjà vu. Only four months ago, hype surrounding the possibility of Lionel Messi playing in Israel, reached fever pitch. The friendly between Argentina and Israel looked set to go ahead until Palestinians began to call on Messi to withdraw, citing the fact that playing the match in Jerusalem would legitimise Israel’s claim to the city as its capital and Israeli violence against Palestinian protesters in Gaza’s Great March of Return. Heeding the calls, the match was cancelled. Argentinian footballing legend Diego Maradona told Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas “my heart is Palestinian”.

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The cancellation of the football match was seen as a “spectacular own goal” by Israel and a victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Yet though for most Israelis the incident was little more than a lost opportunity, for one Israeli tycoon this represented something bigger. The most recent negotiations for an Athlético-Barcelona match have very little to do with football, or in fact bringing Messi to play in Israel – rather they are a chance to settle old scores.

There are some powerful players involved in the ongoing negotiations. As ILTV noted, the deal is being mediated by Comtec Group, an events company with offices in Tel Aviv, Barcelona, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Comtec was the company behind the Giro d’Italia’s “Big Start” being held in Jerusalem back in May and boasts a client list that includes the Haifa Municipality, the Maccabi Haifa football team and the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.

Comtec is run by Danny Benaim, an Israeli businessman who, after the cancellation of June’s Argentina match, claimed that Qatar was behind the Argentinians’ decision to pull out. The Times of Israel reported that allegedly “Qatar leaned on Argentina to pull out of the event and has stepped in to foot the bill for compensation the Argentinians will need to pay to the Israeli company which arranged the game [Comtec]”. The Times of Israel added that “in addition to a reported $2.2 million in damages the Argentinians [had] already agreed to pay, Danny Benaim […] also demanded additional sums for aggravation caused to promoters and to fans”.

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Though Benaim is on the front line of the negotiations, in the background is a tycoon with an agenda. Idan Ofer, a London-based Israeli businessman estimated to be worth $3.4 billion, boasts a vast portfolio of investments, including operating a 100-strong fleet of container and crude oil ships through his company Eastern Pacific Shipping. He also owns a 53 per cent share in Israel Corp., Israel’s largest holding company which has major stakes in subsidiary shipping, oil and chemical companies.

Ofer also happens to be a shareholder at Athlético Madrid. In February 2018, Israeli financial newspaper Globes reported that Ofer bought an additional 17 per cent stake in the Spanish club through Quantum Pacific Group, a holding company based in Guernsey in which Ofer holds major shares. Though the Athlético shares were bought for an undisclosed sum, financial data site CB Insights puts the figure at $62 million. Globes added that, when added to his existing shares, Ofer’s total stake in the Spanish club would amount to 32 per cent.

Idan Ofer originates from a wealthy Israeli family and is the son of the late Sammy Ofer, an Israeli shipping magnate who in 2009 was estimated to be worth $4 billion. Sammy Ofer was a keen philanthropist, donating money to an array of organisations including London’s National Maritime Museum and a hospital in Haifa. In 2009 Sammy also donated some $20 million towards the building of a new sports stadium in his hometown of Haifa. The stadium was subsequently named the Sammy Ofer Stadium, in honour of his contribution.

So where exactly is the match between Athlético Madrid and Barcelona slated to be played? In the Sammy Ofer Stadium. Where was the original Argentina-Israel match slated to be held, before the Israeli government intervened and pushed for the match to be held in Jerusalem’s Teddy Kolleck stadium? In the Sammy Ofer Stadium.

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Though there have been no reports confirming Idan Ofer’s direct involvement in the negotiation process, that it is in his interest to see the Athlético-Barcelona game go ahead can be in little doubt. What is also clear is that these negotiations have little to do with the Israeli public’s desire to see Messi play and everything to do with settling scores. ILTV’s report claimed that “originally Athlético Madrid requested to play against the Israeli national team, but because of some regulations in the Spanish league that wasn’t possible, so they went for option B which was Barcelona”. If this original scenario were to have taken place, Lionel Messi would not have been a factor in the equation.

It is clear then that Israel cannot afford for BDS to be seen to have prevented games from being played in Israel. To allow such a victory would be to admit defeat. Idan Ofer has long been haunted by the spectre of BDS, in 2011 telling Hebrew language news site Calcalist that: “We are quickly turning into South Africa. The economic damage in the wake of boycott and sanctions will be felt by every family in Israel. The top percentiles, members of the middle class and first and foremost the distressed classes.” Picking up on the story, BDS noted that in response to the “threat” they posed, Ofer “conducted a meeting […] to begin promotion of the ‘Israel Initiates’ peace initiative in order to head off the growing international movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel”.

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Ofer’s foresight was perceptive, as BDS has indeed grown in strength in the seven years since he made his statement. That Israel feels increasingly threatened by the movement can be seen in the lengths to which it will go to quash its influence, whether this means barring the entry of BDS activists, fighting legal battles in foreign courts or taking out “insurance” to protect its international events. If the Athlético-Barcelona game goes ahead and Messi does indeed play in Israel, it will be lauded domestically as a victory of right over wrong, of Israel over BDS, of justice done. However, what the match will really represent is the strength of Israeli business interests and the ability of powerful people to reduce cultural and sporting events to little more than a vehicle for their personal interests. People like Idan Ofer have a score to settle, and 1-0 down isn’t an option.

Argentina cancels football match with Israel – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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