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.
Israel embassy cite unspecified threat to Lionel Messi as reason for cancellation
The Israeli embassy confirmed on Tuesday that the friendly has been cancelled, citing unspecified threats against Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.
"The Embassy of Israel regrets to communicate the suspension of the match between Israel and Argentina," a statement said, referring to "threats and provocations" against Messi.
Local media had reported earlier Tuesday that the game was set to be scrapped, depriving Messi and his team-mates of a final warm-up game before they open their World Cup campaign in Russia.
Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie told reporters in Washington on the sidelines of the Organization of American States meeting that he believed Argentina's players had been reluctant to travel to Israel for the game.
"As far as I know, the players of the national team were not willing to play the game," Faurie said before confirmation of the game's cancellation.
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli had last week aired misgivings about having to travel to Israel, noting he would have 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.
"But 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."
On Sunday, Palestinian football boss Jibril Rajoub urged Messi not to play in the game in Jerusalem and urged fans to burn shirts bearing his name if he did.
At a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Rajoub told journalists he had written to Argentina's government asking that Messi not take part in the June 9 friendly.
"This match has become a political tool," Rajoub said in Arabic.
"The Israeli government is trying to give it political significance by insisting it be held in Jerusalem."
The Palestinian Football Federation welcomed the cancellation of the match and said that with it, sport will not be used as "a tool of political blackmail."
It praised the Argentine players "led by the star Messi for refusing to be used as a bridge to achieve non-sporting goals."
Palestinians are outraged at US President Donald Trump's decision last December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, breaking with decades of policy, and move his country's embassy there.
The embassy opened on May 14, fanning Palestinian anger and intensifying protests on the Gaza border, with Israeli forces killing at least 61 Gazans that day.
Palestinians claim the eastern part of Jerusalem, annexed by Israel, as the capital of their future state. The Jewish state considers the entire city its own "indivisible" capital.
"Messi is a symbol of peace and love," Rajoub said. "We ask him not to participate in laundering the crimes of the occupation."
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)."