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How Argentina's World Cup prep ended in Israel controversy

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From Russia With Love: Dan Thomas (0:30)

ESPN FC's Dan Thomas explains why the 1998 World Cup match between England and Argentina will live long in his memory. (0:30)

In a last-minute deviation from their original plan, Argentina's players arrived in Russia this weekend to start their World Cup adventure. They were due to play a friendly against Israel in Jerusalem on Saturday night but earlier in the week the fixture was cancelled, provoking a flurry of outraged reactions worldwide.

In and of itself, not playing a friendly is hardly of any consequence and in many ways it was the right thing to do. It would have added unnecessary miles and hours to an already fatigued group, and when the decision was made to move the venue from Haifa (where it was originally scheduled) to Jerusalem, the event became politically charged.

It was probably the last thing Lionel Messi and Co. needed on the eve of the World Cup, and at first, many celebrated the change of plan. But slowly, a confused picture of the haphazard process that lead to it emerged.

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Throughout a week-long stay in Barcelona as part of their prep, the players had been targeted by pro-Palestine protesters begging them not to go. Argentina shirts covered in blood, pictures of injured children and personalised video messages, like one recorded by a footballer shot in both legs, were aimed directly at Messi. Activists gathered around the Argentine Football Association (AFA) in Buenos Aires and the hashtag #Argentinanovayas (#Argentinadontgo) went viral.

Peaceful protests aimed at raising awareness of the Palestinian cause gathered momentum, but when the drumbeat of intimidation allegedly began to include specific threats against Messi's life, phones started ringing in earnest between the Barcelona camp, Jerusalem and Buenos Aires, and the match was finally cancelled last Wednesday.

It's unclear exactly who made the decision, and why. News reports cited "at the players' request" but sources close to Messi told me categorically: "This was the AFA's call. Lionel doesn't cancel matches, Lionel doesn't call up players, Lionel doesn't name or remove managers. Lio only plays football."

The Argentine media's focus soon turned to the national government: Netanyahu had written to president Mauricio Macri in March inviting him to the game in Jerusalem, it was claimed, and it was further reported that phone calls between the presidencies continued in the hope of reversing the decision up to the very last minute.

"Clearly politics was involved," said one Argentine insider.

The Argentine government have made it clear in their official and unofficial communications that they had no influence on AFA. A senior government advisor who doesn't wish to be named bounced the ball back into the players' court. "It was an understandable decision by the players. They are not warriors, they're footballers. The AFA supported them, as they should, and the government, who has nothing to do with any of this, understood them."

According to one squad insider, the technical staff also distanced themselves from the incident. "We stayed well away from it all with our arms crossed and watched the whole thing crumble." Contacted for response, the players were at least direct in not even wishing to comment at all, not even off the record.

In the end, AFA president Claudio "Chiqui" Tapia issued a statement only to Argentine journalists at the Sofia hotel in Barcelona, leaving a posse of Israeli, Spanish, and other international press in the hotel lobby. He confirmed the cancellation of the match citing health and safety reasons; his ill-advised closing line that he hoped this would "contribute to world peace" only served to fuel critics who regard the whole episode as a massive blunder and a huge embarrassment.

Publicly congratulated by Hamas, Argentina has now become the target of outraged Israeli reaction and an object of international ridicule -- which is the last thing Messi and Co. need as they prepare to start the World Cup.

In an editorial for the Jerusalem Post, former ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor described the incident as a triumph of "diplomatic terrorism."

It was reported that the Football Federation of Israel will demand FIFA expel the Argentine team from the 2018 World Cup in Russia due to alleged "religious discrimination." But even if this doesn't happen in the end, the fallout from the incident has already begun. Delicate negotiations with the company in charge of organizing the now-cancelled friendly will ensue; monies have been paid, tickets had been sold.

Manager Jorge Sampaoli had made no secret that he was against this fixture in the first place but caved to pressure from AFA and the event organisers, who saw an opportunity for much-needed income. Now, the AFA face a much bigger bill. The stakes are high.

"Bear in mind that what we have here is the issue of possible lawsuits on the one hand, and on the other, diplomatic relations," journalist Ezequiel Fernandez Moores tells me from Buenos Aires. "It's always best to blame the players."

The friendship and sporting ties between Argentina and Israel go back a long way and will no doubt continue, but the episode should (and could) have been avoided altogether. Argentina are now entering the World Cup amid a PR disaster at best and a diplomatic scandal at worst. It's a fitting rounding off to what has been four years of utter chaos within football in Argentina.

After their best performance in 24 years at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil where they lost respectably to a superb German side in the Final, the nation's football entered a downward spiral both on and off the pitch.

The death of the AFA's long-serving Godfather-like supremo, Julio Grondona, left a power void that would prove hard to fill. Hand in hand with massive worldwide probes into FIFA corruption, within two years of the epic achievement of 2014 Lionel Messi resigned following the third tournament final defeat with the national side, FIFA investigated the AFA following a rigged election when the total number of votes for president surpassed the number of voters, and a process of "cleaning house" kicked off with the appointment of an interim normalising committee, whose first priority was to lure Messi back to the squad.

Two years and two managers on from then, Argentina are still struggling to find their feet. Manager Jorge Sampaoli has been in the job a year, taking over a side on the brink of the abyss just one match away from failing to qualify. By the skin of their teeth they made it, but Sampaoli arrives in Russia with just 11 games under his belt as manager -- fewer than any other manager in the country's history. (Diego Maradona is next on the list, with 19 games, but then again... he was Maradona).

The stats aren't all bad; from those 11 games he can boast six wins, three draws and two defeats,. But Sampaoli is nevertheless a target for criticism, particularly since the humiliating defeat by Spain in a friendly in March when the hosts thrashed Argentina 6-1. Since then, the only game played has been a comfortable win in a friendly against Haiti in Argentina.

The squad consists of a mix of old-hand veterans such as Javier Mascherano, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, who many deem past their prime, and novices like Giovani Lo Celso, Maximiliano Meza, Nicolas Tagliafico and Cristian Pavon, who, while promising, have little international experience (under 20 caps between them). It's possible Argentina will play its first match of the World Cup with a team that has zero minutes of competitive experience together.

The squad left Argentina disappointed when goalkeeper Sergio Romero was ruled out due to a late injury, and arrived in Russia 10 days later with just 22 players after West Ham attacker Manuel Lanzini tore a ligament in training. His replacement, River Plate midfielder Enzo Perez, has already joined them in Russia.

The regular run-of-the-mill gossip and probing (criticism of a day off, judgments over players' selfies, rumours of tensions) and a marginally more controversial faux pas involving the pope -- the AFA were granted an audience with the pope that they had requested some time back, only to turn it down -- might have otherwise grabbed the headlines, but it all paled in comparison to the staggering fiasco surrounding Israel. As one tweet pointed out, in one week AFA managed to snub the three main monotheistic religions in the world. It would be funny if it wasn't so symptomatic of a collapsed structure that, far from being rebuilt, seems barely holding itself together.

In Argentina, our much-loved game of football has given us moments of peaceful joy against all manner of dreadful backdrops, political and otherwise, throughout history. Yet the current toxic climate suggests it will be very difficult for this particular group of players to rise above the turmoil and deliver what we all want to see: beautiful football.

Argentina stood proud at the final whistle of the last World Cup, their heads held high, but will they be able to boast as much when play kicks off at this one?