Controversy over Lionel Messi’s failure to take part in football match in Hong Kong shows no signs of stopping, and many people in China are taking to social media to express their frustration over his no-show.
Comments by Hong Kong sports lawmaker Kenneth Fok accusing Messi and his American club Inter Miami of disrespecting local fans were among the hottest topics on Weibo on Wednesday. Another popular topic was partly titled ‘Messi’s Mess’.
Many commentators have drawn comparisons between Messi’s behavior in Hong Kong and his behavior in Japan, where he is due to play in a friendly match on Wednesday evening.
Learn more: Why Hong Kong is crazy about Messi
At a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday, the Argentine World Cup winner said he was feeling better and hoped to be able to play. Messi said he remained on the bench during the Hong Kong match due to discomfort in his adductor muscles.
“Smile in Japan but sulk in China, what can I say? said one of the most upvoted comments. “He chose a side and showed his politics. Don’t come back again.
Another sign, the saga extends beyond Hong Kong, according to the former editor-in-chief of the Chinese newspaper World Time, a nationalist tabloid, questioned Messi’s inability to play. In an article on X, Hu Xijin asked why the star did not shake hands with Hong Kong leader John Lee and demanded an apology from Chinese fans.
Public anger could threaten Messi’s partnerships with Chinese brands. Hundreds of users flooded the comments section of a Weibo post Messi has been promoting alcohol brand Chi Shui He, with many calling for the company to cut ties with the Argentine.
China and Japan have a long history of tensions, largely due to Japanese colonial invasions and atrocities during World War II. Government ships from Japan and China regularly seek to expel each other from the waters surrounding disputed islands in the East China Sea. However, Japanese companies are among the largest foreign investors in China and it constitutes an important trading partner.
Foreign individuals and brands are regularly targeted by nationalist elements in China, and the backlash has intensified in recent years. In 2019, Christian Dior SE, Coach, Givenchy and Versace were criticized for identifying Hong Kong or Taiwan as countries separate from China. Two years later, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., apologized after joking that his bank would likely survive the Chinese Communist Party.
Messi, who is the public face of the Saudi tourism campaign, is scheduled to play against Vissel Kobe at Japan’s National Stadium in Tokyo at 7 p.m. local time. This is the last stop on Inter Miami’s pre-season world tour, during which the American club has won only one match: that of Hong Kong.
Although there has been no official comment from Chinese authorities, the Hong Kong government said in a statement statement The authorities and football fans were “extremely disappointed that Messi could neither participate in the friendly match nor explain himself in person at the request of the fans”.
Event organizer Tatler Asia on Monday opted to forgo government funding worth HK$16 million ($2 million) following the controversy. CEO Michel Lamunière blamed Inter Miami for what happened, saying the organizer learned Messi was fit to play early in the match. When it became clear he would not join the match, the team ignored calls for Messi to address the fans, Lamuniere said.
Messi, 36, last played in mainland China in June directed Argentina in a friendly match against Australia in a packed stadium in Beijing. His team is expected to return to China for exhibition matches against Nigeria and Ivory Coast in March, according to the Argentine football federation.
Inter Miami was established in 2018, making it one of the newest teams competing in Major League Soccer in the United States. It was launched with the support of former Manchester United FC, Real Madrid CF and LA Galaxy star David Beckham, who is a co-owner.
Messi joined the club last year. Billionaire Jorge Mas, owner-manager of Inter Miami, said in a July interview that his value could reach $1.5 billion within a year.