Rumors and conspiracy theories have been flying.
Did Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi and his family really receive threats, or was that just a story conjured up by pro-Israeli activists?
Was Qatar, a wealthy regional powerhouse that supports the Palestinian Islamist militia Hamas, secretly involved in Argentina’s decision this week to skip an exhibition soccer game against Israel?
The game was supposed to take place Saturday in Jerusalem. Now Israeli, Palestinian and Argentine officials have been scrambling to explain their positions and control the potential diplomatic damage from the last-minute cancellation.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, ordinary Palestinians celebrated the cancellation as a diplomatic coup against Israel.
But Palestinian officials were trying to distance themselves from the more extreme factions that either had opposed the game or celebrated its cancellation. Hamas, the armed Islamic movement and a bitter foe of the Palestinian Authority, had tweeted: “Thank you, Argentina!”
On Thursday, the Palestine Football Assn., which is affiliated with the Palestinian National Authority, issued a “Formal Apology to the People of Argentina” for its involvement in a video in which Palestinians were shown burning an Argentine flag.
It was an isolated “action that does not represent Palestine, Palestinian people, or the Palestine Football Association,” the organization’s president, Jibril Rajoub, said in the statement. “To the people, the Government, and the football association of Argentina, we hereby send our sincerest apologies … and re-state that [it] does not represent the Palestine Football Association, or the inclination of our people.”
Rajoub was filmed on several occasions earlier this week calling on the entire Islamic world to burn pictures of Messi and Argentine team jerseys in protest of the planed match.
The apology may have been aimed at remaining in the good graces of FIFA, the powerful international soccer federation.
“According to the FIFA statutes, the use of verbal or physical violence, the use of intimidation, of the threat, are strictly prohibited,” Leon Amiras, the vice chair of the Jerusalem bar association, wrote in a petition to FIFA arguing that it kick out the Palestinian federation.
Meanwhile, Argentinians awoke to a shocking report by the TyC Sports channel that Israel was planning to petition FIFA to eliminate the South American powerhouse from the World Cup, which is scheduled to start next week.
Not true, said the Israel Football Assn., which tweeted a reassurance to the Argentine team’s account that its only beef was with the Palestinian federation.
Daniel Benaim, chief executive of Comtecgroup, the production company that paid the Argentine team more than $2 million to participate in the match, called the claim “a big lie.”
“Who are we to ask that Argentina be suspended?” he said.
Israel is barely a speck on the international soccer scene, whereas Argentina won the World Cup — the most-watched sporting event on Earth — in 1978 and 1986 and finished second to Germany in Brazil in 2014.
Argentina’s foreign minister, Jorge Faurie, also tried to correct the record, although he succeeded in mostly muddying it.
On Wednesday, he said the game had been suspended because of threats “worse than ISIS” against top Argentine players.
But in a news conference Thursday, he said the main cause was a decision by the Israeli government to change the game’s location from Haifa, in northern Israel, to Jerusalem, where the U.S. recently relocated its embassy to the outrage of Palestinians and much of the rest of the world.
“The noise around the game was created because of the transfer to Jerusalem and also because of its proximity to the transfer of the U.S. embassy in Israel to the city,” he said.
That contradicted an earlier statement from Miri Regev, Israel’s culture minister, who said there was “no greater lie” than the claim that the move triggered the cancellation.
“The Argentinians never objected to the game in Jerusalem,” she said. In fact, she said, the move “was born of Messi’s desire to visit Jerusalem, kiss the Western Wall and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.”
There was some evidence to back her contention.
Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona visited Jerusalem with the national team in search of good luck before the 1986 triumph, then again in 1990 and 1994. Messi himself visited Jerusalem, kissing the Western Wall and playing a local match in 2013, the year his professional team, Barça, won the Spanish Super Cup.
And last month, Argentine sports media was breathlessly pushing the myth of 1986 and the magic Western Wall.
When the possibility of another Messi visit crumbled this week, conjecture took over.
Much of it focused on who might have been behind protests last week at the Argentine team’s practice grounds in Barcelona, Spain, in which supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, to isolate Israel brandished jerseys in Argentine colors that appeared to be stained with blood.
Without providing further detail, Beto Valdez, an Argentine journalist, tweeted: “The threats at the training ground gates that scared Messi and his family into not playing in Jerusalem were not organized by Palestinians.”
Instead, Valdez said, the rally was organized by Provincia 25, a far-left group headed by Facundo Firmenich, son of the 1970s era guerrilla leader Mario Firmenich, whose name still strikes fear in the hearts of Argentinians and who lives in Spanish exile.
In Israel, major newspapers reported that a dark web of money and regional power plays was behind the debacle.
Messi was featured in a promotional campaign for Turkish Airlines, the national carrier for Turkey, a Hamas ally that threatened to sever its ties to Israel over the recent killings of Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces. And Qatar, a fervent regional enemy of Israel, is a sponsor of FC Barcelona, Messi’s team.
Then there’s the potential financial fallout from the canceled game.
Argentina’s national football team is broke and could have used the money. Now there are worries that it could be forced to pay compensation for breach of contract.
“After the embarrassment, the football federation fear financial demands,” said the sports pages of Clarín, Argentina’s top-selling newspaper.
Sal Emergui, a Middle East correspondent for the Spanish daily El Mundo and writer for Marca, Spain’s leading sports website, perhaps had the clearest take on the canceled game.
“What caused this bedlam?” he said in an interview. “Chaos in the Argentine federation, showboating politicians, players’ fears, a few activists, you name it. All of it.”
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.