TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israeli President Shimon Peres inadvertently kicked a ball straight into the midriff of startled Barcelona striker Lionel Messi as he launched a soccer event by the Spanish league champions in Tel Aviv on Sunday.
The remarkably energetic Peres, 90, dressed in a smart suit, addressed the Catalan team and 15,000 spectators at Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium who came to see Barcelona hold a clinic for young players followed by a training session.
Barcelona have for years been involved in efforts to advance Middle East peace through sport and were making a brief stopover in Israel and the Palestinian territories en-route to a pre-season tour of Asia.
“Your message is play football and make friends, don’t make war and make enemies,” he said before advising the young spectators to watch carefully because “I believe that a day will come and one of you will be like Messi.”
Israel’s head of state then proceeded to kick off the event by intending to pass the ball to Messi, but surprised the Argentinian striker by shooting it directly into his midriff. Messi appeared unfazed by the shot.
Earlier, the players visited Judaism’s revered Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City and listened to speeches by top dignitaries, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, before holding the clinic on a sultry afternoon in Tel Aviv.
On Saturday, Barca’s stars wowed crowds in the occupied West Bank where they paid a visit to Jesus’s traditional birthplace in Bethlehem, met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and held a training clinic with young Palestinian children.
When announcing the planned trip in February, Barca said they wanted to play a friendly match against a side made up equally of Palestinian and Israeli players in Tel Aviv but the Middle Eastern neighbors could not agree on arrangements for the fixture.
Even though they live side by side, Israeli and Palestinian teams do not play each other in competition, as Israel are members of European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, and the Palestinians play in Asia.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams, writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Brian Homewood