Argentina FA president Claudio Tapia apologises for canceled Israel friendly

Argentina Football Association (AFA) president Claudio Tapia has apologised to Israelis for the cancellation of Saturday's international friendly but maintained it was the right decision because of the threatening atmosphere surrounding the match.

The game, Argentina's final warm-up before the World Cup, was to be played in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Malha, which is situated on the site of a former Palestinian village that was destroyed during the war that established Israel 70 years ago.

Palestinian Football Federation chief Jibril Rajoub had accused Israel of playing politics with the game by moving it from its original location in Haifa to Jerusalem and by trying to link it to celebrations surrounding Israel's 70th anniversary.

The cancellation came in the wake of Rajoub calling on Arab and Muslim fans to burn photos and T-shirts of Argentina superstar Lionel Messi if he attended the game.

"Yesterday the decision was taken to not travel and play the friendly game against Israel," Tapia said in Wednesday's news conference in Barcelona, where the team is training. "We apologise to all the Argentines that live in Israel and the Israelis that bought the tickets so fast to watch the Argentina national team.

"We face a reality that has been going on for 70 years. What we've experienced in the last 72 hours, which is public knowledge, the actions, the threats that have occurred, have led us to decide not to travel. My responsibility as president of the Argentina Football Association [AFA] is to look after the health, physical integrity and security of our delegation. I took this decision. I apologise to the Israeli community. It's nothing against them, nothing against the Jewish community, on the contrary."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Argentine President Mauricio Macri and urged him to intervene, but to no avail, on Tuesday. And Israel's sports ministry said a "negotiation" about the match was underway, perhaps in hopes of salvaging it, but gave no further details.

"It's unfortunate the [football] knights of Argentina did not withstand the pressure of the Israeli-hating inciters, whose only goal is to harm our basic right to self-defense and bring about the destruction of Israel," said defense minister Avigdor Lieberman. "We will not yield before a pack of anti-Semitic terrorist supporters."

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said it was a sad morning for Israeli sports fans, including his own grandchildren.

"But there are values that are greater than even Messi," he said. "The politicisation of the Argentine move worries me greatly."

Tapia regrets the game will not go ahead.

"We also apologise to those that were going to take part in an event done for peace," he said.

"There were going to be children from different religions that were going to interact with our players. It was a clear message that football is a universal sport that transcends frontiers, that it has to be understood as a sport, where everything starts and ends on the football pitch, that it has nothing to do with violence.

"We leave the doors open to do some future actions, whether it's from a football standpoint or another sport in Israel or any other country."

Later on Wednesday, a senior official at the Argentine Football Federation said that the national team had received death threats from the Islamic militant group Hamas, which was also a contributing factor to the decision to cancel the match.

The official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns, did not provide evidence or details on the alleged threats.

A Hamas official mocked the reports that Hamas threatened the players, calling them unrealistic and saying they don't deserve a comment. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to comment on the issue.

Argentina will now remain in Barcelona, where they have been training for the World Cup, until Saturday when they will travel to Russia.

The Albiceleste begin their World Cup campaign against Iceland on June 16.

"All our energy is now on the World Cup," Tapia said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.