BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina have cancelled their final World Cup warmup match against Israel, striker Gonzalo Higuain said on Tuesday, as political pressure grew ahead of Saturday’s scheduled fixture in Jerusalem.
“They’ve finally done the right thing,” Higuain said in an interview with ESPN, confirming reports the game had been cancelled.
The match at Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek Stadium was to be Argentina’s last before they kick off their World Cup campaign in Russia on June 16.
There was no initial reaction from the Israeli FA or from Israeli politicians. Reports said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called Argentinian President Mauricio Macri to ask him to persuade the team not to cancel their visit.
Israel Radio quoted an unnamed diplomatic official who said the chances of salvaging the fixture were very slim.
The visit of twice world champions Argentina has attracted huge interest among Israeli fans, mainly because of Barcelona great Lionel Messi’s planned participation.
Palestinians celebrated the cancellation. In Gaza, people cheered and in Ramallah in the West Bank, the Palestinian FA issued a statement thanking Messi and his colleagues for cancelling the game.
“The Palestinian FA thanks Argentina’s players led by star Messi for refusing to be used to serve a non-sporting goal.”
Palestinian FA chairman Jibril Rajoub said: “Values, morals and sport have secured a victory today and a red card was raised at Israel through the cancellation of the game.”
Rajoub called a news conference for Wednesday in Ramallah, which he will hold outside the Argentinian representative’s office. On Sunday, he called for Palestinians to burn replica shirts and pictures of Messi.
The stadium that was to host the match is in west Jerusalem. The Palestinians want the eastern part of the city as the capital of a future state that will include the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
However, the status of Jerusalem is highly sensitive. The match was originally slated to be played in Haifa but Israeli authorities contributed funding for it to be moved to Jerusalem, irking Palestinians further following U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital. The U.S. embassy was moved there last month.
The cancellation is just one more obstacle for Argentina, who were beaten finalists at the World Cup in Brazil four years ago and whose preparations have been troubled this time around.
They suffered a heavy defeat to Spain in a friendly and lost their first-choice goalkeeper to injury, giving little encouragement to fans who watched the team struggle to qualify for the tournament in Russia.
The twice World Cup winners face Iceland, Nigeria and Croatia in what is considered to be one of the hardest groups in the tournament.
Writing by Andrew Downie, reporting by Ramiro Scandalo. Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem. Editing by Toby Davis