If Argentina win the World Cup this summer, Israel can take some of the credit.
The Argentinian players — Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero et al — are due in Jerusalem on June 9 to play a friendly match in the Teddy Stadium, seven days before they kick off in their first match in the World Cup finals against Iceland in Moscow.
Many of the players are devout Catholics who believe that the opportunity to pray in Jerusalem will boost their World Cup chances.
Pope Francis, an enthusiastic fan of the Argentinean team, will reportedly send a personal emissary to conduct a special mass for the team in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Messi, the team captain, is in no doubt about how important the trip could be. He said: “I really want to visit the Holy Land and for Argentina this will be an important professional and spiritual journey and I’m convinced that coming to Israel ahead of the World Cup will do us good.”
Argentina’s manager Jorge Sampaoli was rather less enthusiastic. “I’d rather play the match nearer our pre-World Cup training camp in Barcelona but the head of the Argentina FA said that this is something we have to do.”
The match revives a tradition began in 1986 when Argentina beat Israel 7-2 in the Ramat Gan stadium several weeks before the World Cup finals which they went on to win in Mexico.
Argentina also played friendlies in Israel before the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cup finals with Israel winning the 1998 match 2-1. The match will also be part of Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations although the Israeli FA has denied a suggestion that Argentina is being paid $3 million to play.