Opinion |

Messi and Israelism

The Israeli waiter's identification with his country is so strong that even a Messi fan like him found himself booing the Argentinean star after he canceled a game in Jerusalem

Uzi Baram
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Messi, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on June 21, 2014.
Argentine striker Lionel Messi celebrates his goal against Iran during their World Cup football match in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on June 21, 2014. Credit: AFP
Uzi Baram

The waiter who served us at the restaurant heard us talking about soccer and joined the conversation. He said his brother had traveled to the Russian town of Saransk to watch the World Cup game between Peru and Denmark, but he preferred to spend his money on a new television set. His heart belongs to Brazil, he said, but what’s most important to him is that Argentina be utterly destroyed.

I led the conversation in the direction of the Jewish-Arab issue and asked if he feels the same degree of hatred for Egyptian soccer star Mohammed Salah, who once refused to play in Israel. Absolutely not, he said. He understands Salah’s position, because Israel has a conflict with the Arab world. Moreover, that was the decision of one individual.

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I tried to understand, then, why the Argentine team in particular disturbs his peace. His answer reflected anguish. For years, he’s been a fan of Barcelona and conducted heated arguments with fans of Madrid. For him, Barca star Lionel Messi was an admired and beloved figure, someone dear to his heart.

Thus Messi’s canceling of a game in Israel earlier this month made him feel betrayed and abandoned. He was beside himself with anticipation over the arrival of his idol, but the idol let him down. Admittedly, he hadn’t been able to obtain a ticket for the game, but he was impatiently awaiting the thrill he would get from watching the game on his new television set.

I told him that I, as a sports fan, nevertheless understand Argentina’s reasons for deciding to cancel the game after it was moved to Jerusalem for partisan and personal reasons.

But that whole story didn’t interest him. His face displayed anger and gloom at every mention of Messi’s name.

I told him his feeling of betrayal was out of place. When one half of a couple that used to love each other breaks up the marriage, the spouse feels betrayed. But Messi has fans all over the world, some of whom surely don’t identify with his political or social views. Therefore, I said, Messi can’t steer himself by your wishes.

“True,” he said. “Messi doesn’t owe me anything, because I don’t know him. But that doesn’t matter. Messi hurt me directly. I feel deeply, personally offended. After all, Messi is boycotting me and my country. I pray every morning that Messi will be defeated and humiliated, and perhaps he’ll understand that betraying people like me did him harm.”

I tried to classify him politically. No, he has no sympathy for Elor Azaria, the soldier convicted of killing a wounded Palestinian assailant. At that point, the young waiter ended the conversation and got back to work, leaving me to my thoughts.

I always knew that emotions affect people’s political views, but this likeable young man took it to extremes. And I thought that we need to understand other people’s viewpoints and motives rather than scorning them, because they reflect deep desires.

For people like him, this blow to the state and its symbols was genuinely a personal one. He doesn’t identify with any clear political positions, but his identification with the country is so strong that even a Messi fan like him found himself praying for Messi to fail.

I don’t propose that anyone determine his political positions based on people who feel that way. Nor do I propose turning a chance conversation at a café into a strategic model. But when we seek to change other people’s views, it’s important for us to understand that there are quite a few people who get deeply offended by things which we consider negligible or even imperceptible.

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