By Ray Hanania
World football champion Lionel Messi has found himself in the middle of a big Middle East mess this week after his Argentinian team was invited to play in a World Cup warm-up match at Teddy Kollek Stadium in West Jerusalem on Saturday.
Since he was a young child in Argentina, all Messi wanted was to play football. And at 30, he has positioned himself as one of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen, both as a forward for Barcelona and as the captain of the Argentine national team.
Messi’s job as a striker puts him in the most important position on the pitch, the “glamor spot,” leading the scoring for his team. But if he plays against Israel in Jerusalem on Saturday, Messi will be kicking a ball into the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Celebrities performing in Israel have become the major focus of the conflict in recent years as entertainers, sports figures, authors and even nations are being urged to take sides on the grounds of morality.
The challenge facing Messi is can he ignore the huge and ugly moral question that hangs over the stadium and the region where he will perform? Does he only care about fame, fortune and sporting celebrity, or does he have the humanity to also care about human rights, justice and overcoming oppression?
In the past two months, Israel has killed more than 118 Palestinians and injured thousands in Gaza as they protested against Israel’s rejection of peace.
The majority of those killed and injured have been civilians who have done nothing more than protest and chant on their side of the Gaza-Israel border, while Israeli soldiers have used high-powered automatic rifles from their side to maim and kill the innocent.
This week, Israeli snipers killed Razan Al-Najjar, a Palestinian nurse who had been on the front lines assisting the wounded. Although she was clearly wearing a medical uniform, an Israeli sniper put her in his weapon’s crosshairs and fired one shot that instantly killed her.
The Al-Najjar killing has only heightened the issue of Israel’s conduct, which critics claim is heavy-handed. Instead of killing or injuring protesters, the Israelis could simply monitor the protests and arrest anyone who actually crossed the heavily fenced border. None have. So why kill them?
By playing in Jerusalem, at a time when the United States has relocated its embassy there from Tel Aviv, Messi will be making a statement about whether his career is only about money, celebrity and fame, or whether his lifetime dedication to sport has any substantive humanity.
Saturday’s game is not official. It won’t change the Argentinian team’s international standing. It’s a show game, one orchestrated by Israel to be exploited for the political message it will send. Messi has an important choice to make. Does he play and rush through the controversy as he often does as a forward, kicking the ball down the field into the opposing team’s goal as a professional athlete?
Or does he recognize that he is more than just an athlete? He is a sports symbol who can take a powerful stand on issues of human rights and show that not only does he have talent, but he has humanity, too.