Occupied Jerusalem: Israeli President Shimon Peres on Sunday praised Lionel Messi and his fellow Barcelona stars as “messengers of peace” as they made a brief visit to Israel and the Palestinians territories.
“Israeli and Palestinian children dream of two goals,” Peres told the visitors in remarks broadcast on public radio. “Scoring the winning goal at Camp Nou, and the great goal of peace.”
The players and staff were mobbed by 25,000 fans, who included Mohammad Assaf, the Gaza singer who won the ‘Arab Idol’ talent show earlier this year, when they arrived on Saturday on their ‘Peace Tour’ and travelled to the West Bank city of Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born.
After meeting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at his Ramallah headquarters they held a football clinic near the southern West Bank town of Dura.
On Sunday they visited Occupied Jerusalem’s walled Old City to stand at the Western Wall, the holiest site at which Jews can pray.
After a reception at Peres’ Occupied Jerusalem residence, the team was due later to give a coaching session to Israeli youngsters in Tel Aviv.
Peres, who turned 90 on Friday, is to deliver the opening kick.
“Barca is more than just a club,” he said at the reception. “You became each of you messengers of peace.
“Sport, and football in particular, breaks down barriers. In football there are no victims but always hope for the next match.”
On Saturday, Jibril Rajoub, the president of the Palestinian football federation, said he hoped that when Barcelona visited again in the future, it would be in a “an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel”.
“Sport is the best way to overcome hate and hostility,” said Rajoub, who described the visit as an “historic day”.
The training sessions were organised by the Peres Centre for Peace as well as the Israeli and Palestinian football federations.
In October 2012, Barcelona caused controversy when former Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held for five years on the Gaza Strip, was invited to watch the Classico match between Barca and Real Madrid.
It was a decision that sparked calls for a boycott of the Catalan club.
Meanwhile, Barcelona striker Neymar has reportedly been put on a special diet by the club’s medical staff to ease signs of anaemia just days after he made his debut for the club, according to Spanish newspaper El Pais.
The Brazilian international joined the Catalan giants in June for €57 million (Dh277 million) and made his long-awaited debut last week in a 2-2 friendly draw against Lechia Gdasnk in Poland.
However, according to the paper signs of anemia were detected on his return to training after an extended summer break due to his participation in the Confederations Cup.
“Neymar is being treated by Barcelona’s doctors for signs of anemia with an adequate diet and complementary course of vitamins,” it said on Saturday without quoting a source for the story.
Barcelona were not immediately available for comment, but the club had previously confirmed that the player had his tonsils removed after leading his country to victory in the Confederations Cup.
Anemia is a treatable condition but is thought to be extremely debilitating for top athletes as a low level of haemoglobin in the blood stream can cause excessive levels of tiredness.
The news is also likely to disrupt the club’s plans to work intensively on building on the 21-year-old’s strength after club doctor Ricard Pruna expressed concerns at his slight weight of 64.5 kilos (142lbs, 10.2 stone) when he underwent his medical.
Neymar made his home bow against old club Santos on Friday night as he played 45 minutes in Barca’s 8-0 destruction of the Brazilians and has travelled with his teammates to take part in coaching clinics in Palestine and Israel before they embark on a tour of Asia with friendlies in Thailand and Malaysia.