Argentina's forward Lionel Messi found himself in the middle of a controversy as the Israeli and Palestinian football associations traded accusations on Wednesday over the cancellation of a World Cup warm-up match between the Jewish state and Argentina in the disputed city of Jerusalem.
Israel accused the Palestinians of “football terror,” saying their threats saw Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi and his team abandon what would have been Argentina's final friendly match ahead of the World Cup.
The Palestinians rejected the allegation, saying the Argentinians pulled out of the match as they realised Israel was using their presence for political gain.
The encounter was called off on Tuesday after a campaign by the Palestinians following its relocation to Jerusalem.
Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub had urged Argentina's star player Lionel Messi not to take part and called on fans to burn shirts bearing his name if he did.
Rotem Kamer of the Israel Football Association accused Palestinian Football Association and its president of threatening players and their families, without providing any evidence.
The sold-out game in Jerusalem was hotly opposed by Palestinians, who claim the eastern part of the city, occupied and later annexed by Israel, as the capital of their future state.
It had originally been scheduled to take place the northern Israeli city of Haifa but was moved after pressure from Israel's hardline sports minister, Miri Regev.
Palestinians were already angered by United States President Donald Trump's transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, which sparked protests in Gaza in which dozens of Palestinians were killed.
Ahead of the game Rajoub had urged Messi not to take part and called on fans to burn shirts bearing his name if he did.
Speaking on Wednesday, he thanked the Argentinians for the cancellation, saying he hopes they will win the World Cup.
“I think what happened yesterday is a red card from everybody to the Israelis to (get them to) understand that they (only) have a right to organise, or play football within their internationally recognised borders,” he said in English, pointing out the final status of Jerusalem is supposed to be the subject of negotiations between the parties.
Rajoub laughed off Israeli threats of action, denying there was any intimidation.
“The Argentinian Football Association cancelled the agreement it signed with the Israelis because it reached the conclusion that this match is a political one.”
Israeli media said that late on Tuesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Argentine President Mauricio Macri, with whom he has good relations, in an effort to save the match but that Macri had said he was unable to intervene.
Netanyahu is currently visiting Europe and his office could not immediately confirm the reports.
Israeli daily Yisrael Hayom, considered close to Netanyahu, expressed ire at Argentina with its front-page headline: “They surrendered to terrorism: The game against Argentina has been cancelled".
Argentina players 'not willing'
Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie said before confirmation of the game's cancellation that he believed his country's players had been reluctant to travel to Israel for the match.
“As far as I know, the players of the national team were not willing to play the game,” Faurie said.
The status of Jerusalem, always a key sticking point in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, surged back to centre-stage when Trump tore up decades of US policy to recognise it as Israel's capital in December.
The US shifted its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem in May on the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel, in a move met with condemnation from the Palestinians.
At the same time, Israel has faced fierce criticism over its use of lethal force against Palestinian protesters on the Gaza Strip border with the Jewish state in which at least 125 Gazans, including a medic, have been killed.
The press in Argentina and Israel reported that the Argentine Football Association was supposed to receive a payment of between two and three million dollars if Messi played.
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli last week aired misgivings about having his players make the trip to Israel, noting he preferred to remain in Barcelona, where the team is holding its pre-World Cup training camp.
“From a sporting point of view, I would have preferred to play in Barcelona,” Sampaoli said.
The World Cup kicks off in Russia on June 14, with Messi looking to inspire Argentina to victory, having lost in the final four years ago.
Israel has not qualified for the tournament.