The boycott by the Argentinian team has set a precedent for other football teams thinking of playing in Israel. A strong signal that Israeli crimes have consequences.

The opening game of the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Moscow today with host country Russia taking on Saudi Arabia. Over the course of the next four weeks, there’ll be only one team left standing from the 32 that take part in the group matches, and there’s a big reason why you should hope that team is Argentina.

The decision by the Argentine national football team to cancel their final World Cup warm up match in Jerusalem is not only a watershed moment for the Palestinian liberation movement, but also might be the wound Israel never recovers from.

Argentina were scheduled to play a friendly against the Israeli national team on Saturday at a stadium built atop of the destroyed Palestinian village al-Malha. It was cancelled after facing harsh criticism from pro-Palestinian activists and the broader international community in the wake of the recent and ongoing killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters by the Israeli military.

“In the end we were able to do the right thing. We think it was best not to go to Israel,” said Argentine player and Juventus FC star Gonzalo Higuain. The vice president of the country’s Football Association, Hugo Moyano, said the cancellation was a “good thing,” adding, “They [Israel] kill so many people, and as a human being you can’t accept that in any way,” while Lionel Messi, who ranks among the most famous athletes in the world, has previously spoken out against Israel’s 2014 siege of Gaza in his role as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

Only weeks earlier the Israeli government had boasted that the scheduled match would be a massive public relation win for the country. Miri Regev, Israel’s Minister for Culture and Sport, even predicted Messi would “kiss the Western Wall” and “shake hands with Netanyahu,” so one doesn’t have to look too far to see just how utterly humiliating the Argentine decision to cancel the fixture is to Israel.

Moreover, football is the most popular sport in Israel, and according to a recent survey Messi’s Spanish league club, Barcelona, is the most popular international team among the Israeli population, “So watching him face off against Israel’s team on its turf would have been an especially big deal,” observed the Canadian Jewish News.

Essentially, football is to the Israeli psyche what rugby was to the identity of the apartheid South African regime in the 1980s, so a boycott by an international football team and the world’s best football players is far greater wound than a boycott carried out against an Israeli hummus manufacturer or cosmetics company. 

While the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement has scored many notable wins in its effort to exact an economic cost on Israel’s stubborn defiance of international law, specifically its refusal to end its blockade and occupation of the Palestinian territories, none, until now, however, have cut so deeply into Israel’s sense of self-being.

Nothing matches the “psychological power” of the sports boycott. When international rugby teams boycotted South Africa in protest against apartheid, it denied their ability to compete on an international stage, against its international rugby peers, and thus was considered by white South Africans to be the most hard felt of all efforts to isolate it in the international community.

“The effectiveness of sports boycotts and embargoes relies on several distinctive features. The most important of these is product substitution,” observes Malcolm MacLean, a former chair of the British Society for Sports History. 

“The organization of international sport means that the product being denied could not be acquired from elsewhere, even if there are close alternatives. International sport is often described as a monopoly, that is where a single ‘seller’ dominates the international sport market.”

Depriving Israel the ability to compete on the international stage against its international footballing peers will exact an enormous psychological toll on the Israeli public, and may for the first time in many years give the self-proclaimed Jewish state a bitter taste of what international isolation looks and feels like, one that is likely to threaten the state’s steely determination to maintain its illegal colonial enterprise project.

“[Sporting boycotts] have the power to cut fresh inroads, impose heavy sacrifices on the target, and inflict deep internal cleavages in the political fabric of the target regime – cleavages hard for the untrained eye to see on initial impact,” note M.S. Daoudi and M.J. Dajani, co-authors Economic Sanctions: Ideals and Experience.

The football boycott by Argentina has the psychological power to awaken Israel from its current slumber, and no doubt will reignite efforts to have Israel excluded from football’s world governing body FIFA, and also the European Championship League (UEFA), efforts that have been underway for more than a decade.

No state that prides itself on democratic values wishes or desires to be isolated, and any exclusion that targets the cultural fabric of a society is bound to create a tear. Football is deeply woven into the Israeli character, and that’s why Argentina’s decision to cancel its game in Jerusalem is a big deal.

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