(JTA) — Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi was slammed as “Jewish” and a “Zionist” by Egyptian officials after donating his soccer shoes to a charity in Egypt.
Messi, who plays for the Barcelona Football Club, was interviewed last week on the Egyptian television program “Yes, I Am Famous” on the private network MBC Masr.
“One of the things he does is give charity all over the world, and these will be among the donations he gives,” Egyptian host Mona El-Sharkawy said as the soccer star held a pair of red, black and white cleats up to the camera. “And he gave these to our program because we will have an auction for them. Messi, thank you very very much.”
Shoes are considered an insult in Arab and Egyptian culture, in part because they are lowly and dirty and literally touch the ground.
Said Hasasein, a member of the Egyptian parliament and also a talk-show host, ripped Messi on the air.
“Whose shoes do you want to sell, Messi? How much do you think it will get? You don’t know that the nail of a baby Egyptian is worth more than your shoes? Keep your shoes to yourself or sell them to Israel,” he said.
Hasasein then took off his shoes and said: “This is my shoe. I donate it to Argentina. This is an insult to Egyptian people.”
Egyptian Football Federation spokesman Azmi Mogahed phoned in to the show to criticize Messi.
“Even in our religion …,” he began to say when Hasasein reportedly interrupted to say “His religion is Jewish!”
Mogahed agreed, saying: “I know he’s Jewish, he donates to Israel and visited the Wailing Wall and whatever … we don’t need his shoe and Egypt’s poor don’t need help from someone with Jewish or Zionist citizenship.”
Messi is a Catholic and has made the sign of the cross on his chest after scoring goals. In August 2013, he visited the Western Wall on a peace tour with the Barcelona club. One year later Messi supported a soccer match organized by Pope Francis to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but he did not play in the match due an injury.
An Egyptian soccer player, Ahmed “Mido” Hossam, posted on Twitter: “The most precious thing the writer owns is his pen and the most precious thing the footballer owns is his shoes. I hope we stop these false accusations.”
Other reactions on social media accused Messi, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, of supporting the Israeli occupation “that is killing the children of Palestine every day.”