The Man Who Almost Brought Lionel Messi to Israel Explains Why It Never Happened

But Daniel Benaim did stage the Giro d’Italia in Israel. Next? Maybe the Tour de France

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Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi at the Jose Zorrilla Stadium in Valladolid on August 25, 2018.
Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi at the Jose Zorrilla Stadium in Valladolid on August 25, 2018. Credit: Benjamin Cremel / AFP

Among the thousands of tourists who packed the stadium in Moscow at the start of the World Cup soccer tournament in June was Daniel Benaim, who had staged the Giro d’Italia cycling race in Israel a month earlier. But Benaim, a big soccer fan, did not come to Moscow just to watch the games. He came to hold a meeting of reconciliation with one of the early favorites to win the World Cup: Argentina and its captain and leader, Lionel Messi.

A week before the World Cup began, the Argentine team cancelled its friendly match scheduled in Israel – leaving Benaim, CEO of the company that organized the match, shocked, disappointed and saddled with millions in financial commitments.

>>Messi and Israelism | Opinion

“They were around me all the time, apologized without end and showered me with love,” he recalled to TheMarker. “They wanted us to immediately open our schedules and set a new date for the visit. But I’m an optimist, and I said, wait a minute, there’s no pressure. I actually hoped they would win the World Cup – and come to Israel as world champions.”

Of course, that’s not what happened and Argentina, which was knocked out in the round of 16, was forced to return home in shame. Benaim says they are still in contact and he believes that the Argentine team will visit Israel.

What exactly happened with the game with Argentina?

“The official reason given was that the players were threatened by Palestinian groups. I think that during that the transfer of the American Embassy to Jerusalem enraged Jibril Rajoub, the chairman of the Palestinian soccer federation, who applied pressure to cancel the visit,” says Benaim. “He didn’t want to see a picture of Messi at the Kotel [Western Wall] and exploited the media uproar over Jerusalem.”

Former kibbutznik

Benaim, 59, was born in Morocco, came to Israel when he was six and grew up in the development town of Kiryat Malakhi. In his younger days he was the singer for a band named Moby Dick and after finishing his army service he was one of the founders of Kibbutz Tlalim in the Negev.

He eventually moved to the center of the country and in 1982 established his own company, Comtec (today Comtecgroup), which manages 100 million shekels ($27.6 million) of projects a year. “I saw that they were doing conferences around the world at a higher technical level, and wanted to bring this same level to conferences in Israel, too,” said Benaim.

This year, Benaim made headlines for organizing, together with Canadian businessman and cycling enthusiast Sylvan Adams, the Giro d’Italia bicycle race, one of the largest and most complex sporting events in the world, whose opening was held in Israel for the first time. He also staged the judo world championships in Tel Aviv in April. But his real crowning glory was supposed to have been the game with the Argentine national team, with all its stars – in Israel, less than a week before the start of the World Cup.

The negotiations for the game were drawn out, but he says he never thought there was any reason for concern.After all, back in 2013 he had brought Messi’s Barcelona team to Israel with a campaign message of peace, in which open practice sessions were held in Tel Aviv and in the Palestinian Authority.

At the time, Rajoub tried to flex his muscles and block the game, but Benaim prevailed. When the team arrived in Israel, Messi was photographed visiting the Western Wall and met with then-President Shimon Peres. Since then, Benaim has built a warm relationship with the team’s management, which was quickly translated into business dealings.

“Since the success of the previous visit we remained in contact with Messi and his father,” said Benaim. “And after Argentina made the World Cup we received an email from Messi’s father, who wanted to come to Israel so his son could visit the Kotel, like Maradona did before the 1986 World Cup – when Argentina won.”

The email eventually led to negotiations with Torneos, the Argentinian sports production company. Staging the match in Israel was a financial challenge from the start.

“When Argentina, Barcelona or any other top team travels for a friendly match, the game is held on a field that can hold about 100,000 seats. A production company organizes the game and splits the profits from the sale of the tickets (about 30% for the company and 70% for the club) and everybody profits. But in Israel the stadiums can hold a maximum of 30,000 fans, and given the high expenses, there is not enough money in it. So we decided to pay Torneos in advance to buy the game and take on all the costs. At first, I thought that I could make a profit from it, but very quickly I realized that high costs would not leave me much profit, if any.”

Haifa or Jerusalem?

“The game was set for Saturday, June 9, five days before the opening of the World Cup. I paid the money in advance to Torneos, and begin to prepare the ground. Jerusalem was the first and natural choice to hold the game. It is also what Messi’s father wanted, near the Kotel. But at a certain stage it seemed the field was not appropriate in terms of the production, so I decided to try Haifa, where the field is modern and more appropriate, and as it turned out later, the production would be cheaper too.

“But then the Culture [and Sports] Ministry asked for the game to be in Jerusalem. I explained to them the financial issue and they agreed to pay the difference, after a lot of cuts, of 2.7 million shekels. Either way, at that time it seemed that we were on the right course; I felt that it was even going to be very easy. Certainly in comparison to the Giro d’Italia.”

About two weeks before the planned match, Benaim began to sense trouble.

“I began receiving whispers and rumors from the guys at Torneos that something bad was happening. I didn’t manage to get the schedule for the visit, asked and didn’t receive it. A few days later, Messi’s father disappeared. He didn’t answer WhatsApp [messages]. Still, no one told us anything, and we continued with the production. Preparing parking lots, dismantling traffic circles, hiring workers.

“The days passed and two days before the Argentine national team was supposed to land here, the CEO of Torneos told me for the first time there was a problem, that the team asked to cancel the game.

“I managed to enlist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to talk with the President of Argentine Mauricio Macri and try to convince him, but despite all the prime minister’s good intentions, it didn’t succeed. The night between June 5 and 6, we were up all night. We tried to apply all the pressure we could to prevent the cancellation.

“On June 6, the day before the Argentina team was supposed to arrive, Chiqui Tapia, the head of the Argentine Football Association, tells me he’s going to announce at a press conference that the match is canceled. In a desperate last-minute effort, my partner Ariel Reber gets on a flight for Buenos Ares and asks Chiqui to hold off on the announcement until he lands.

“Meanwhile, there is tons to deal with in Israel – pressure from the press, from sponsors, from ticket-buyers. By the afternoon, I understand that it’s a lost cause and at 3:00 P.M. Tapia announces the cancellation of the match.”

A flourishing industry

Worldwide, convention tourism is a $27 billion industry. Considered one of the most important sectors for incoming tourism, it is a vital economic basis for urban development. In 2016, Israel ranked 62 out of 113 countries in the number of international conventions hosted (34 were held here that year).

The growing industry has been good for Comtec, which since the 1980s has been providing services to companies that organize conventions.

“I expanded very quickly and essentially became a subcontractor of conventions for conference organizing companies like the Kenes Group.”

One day, Benaim recalls that Haim Baron, then owner of the financial newspaper Globes, invited him to his office. “I walked into a smoke-filled room. Baron was sitting there with Yitzhak Rabin, who was prime minister then. I admit I trembled a bit with excitement,” recalls Benaim. “They invited me to have a whiskey with them.Baron said to me, ‘Explain to Rabin what conventions are and how you get people to come to them.’”

Not long after that heady moment, geopolitics dealt a major blow to Benaim’s firm — the Gulf War of 1990. His business, centered on economic and medical conventions in Israel, had been flourishing.

“Thirty conventions that were scheduled were all canceled at once because of the security situation, and I was on the verge of bankruptcy.”

Faced with the volatility of the Israeli market, Benaim decided to branch out globally and broaden the company’s fields of expertise.”We started producing major events in the world. I developed contacts with [former U.S. President] Bill Clinton and [former New York Mayor] Rudy Giuliani, and I was among those who helped move the Davos Summit from Switzerland to New York following the September 11 attack.”

Today Comtec has branches in New York, Barcelona, Hong Kong and Shanghai, in addition to the headquarters on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, where 50 people work.

Benaim’s connection with the world of sport began by chance. “In 1994 I launched a big convention on the plaza of the Israel Museum. It was in February, in the winter, and I was looking for a large tent that could hold all the visitors, and at the time there were no tents like that for rent in Israel. I eventually bought one for an exorbitant price. A little while after that, Maccabi Tel Aviv was set to host the Final Four of the Euroleague basketball championship and they were looking for such a tent. And that’s how I came to stage the Final Four for them, which was a big success. And so the Euroleague also heard of us and asked me to produce events for them too.”

Bringing the Giro d’Italia to Israel was considered a major coup, but Benaim acknowledges that he made no money from the event.

“Sylvan Adams sought a partner and I didn’t want to burden him with our production costs,” said Benaim, referring to the co-organizer of the event. “I feel that because of the Giro we’ve moved from one to a different position, which you can’t measure with money. I earned a partner with Sylvan and now we’re planing to set up an organization that will bring international events here”

Asked whether Israel can make a profit by hosting the Eurovision next year, Benaim is adamant: “The State of Israel must seize the opportunity and invest in it. When you see what sporting events did for the country, you can appreciate their impact. During the two weeks of the Giro, 12,000 tourists visited. Eurovision will be good for Israel both in terms of image and in terms of economics.”

What’s Benaim’s next dream project?

To bring the Tour de France and also the finals of the European soccer, like the UEFA Champions League [to Israel]. I also want to stage the Giro in China and events in Morocco. I have other dreams, too.”

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