Lionel Messi’s no-show at a match in Hong Kong has triggered a surge of online outrage in the city and in mainland China, with the football superstar accused of seeking to embarrass Beijing – or even engaging in a sinister foreign plot.
The Argentine ace and his team, Inter Miami, sparked fury in Hong Kong from fans on Sunday when he did not play in a friendly, citing injury.
Enthusiasts who had splashed upwards of 4,800 Hong Kong dollars ($500) to see Messi chanted “Refund!”, gave thumbs-down signs and drowned out the team’s co-owner, David Beckham, with jeers as he tried to thank the crowd.
Just days later, however, he played 30 minutes of a friendly match in Japan – causing outrage and accusations that he had singled out China.
On Friday, Tatler Asia, the event’s organisers, said it was “deeply sorry” for the Messi missed match and promised those who bought tickets a 50 per cent refund.
But the outcry has led the influential nationalist tabloid, Global Times, to suggest that sinister foreign forces had conspired to hurt the city’s reputation.
“One theory is that (Messi’s) actions have political motives, as Hong Kong intends to boost (the) economy through the event and external forces deliberately wanted to embarrass Hong Kong through this incident.
“Judging from the development of the situation, the possibility of this speculation cannot be ruled out,” it said.
Hong Kong govt
The Hong Kong government has demanded an explanation from the match’s organisers, who had sought public funding for the event, and said that they had been repeatedly assured Messi would play.
The Argentine player has said it was “bad luck” that he couldn’t play and that he hopes to return to the city.
But top Hong Kong government advisor Regina Ip has fumed that Messi should “never be allowed to return”.
“Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter-Miami, and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong,” Ip said on social media platform X, deploying a phrase commonly used by the city’s officials to allege sinister foreign interference.
“His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting,” she said.
Missed match: Weibo reactions
On the mainland, Messi’s non-appearance has trended on the X-like Weibo platform all week.
A post by the footballer expressing regret for not being able to play was inundated with mocking comments and memes.
Some featured Messi as an Imperial Japanese soldier – a reference to his alleged preference for the country over China.
“Messi is very rude and arrogant, which is really annoying,” one user wrote.
Reflecting the sore feelings, Hong Kong actress Samantha Ko Hoi-ling was also forced to apologise on the platform after she told local media in the city that she “understood” his decision to skip the game.
However, some suggested the reaction was overblown.
“Do we really need to turn it into a struggle session?” wrote one Weibo user in a reference to China’s bloody Cultural Revolution, when alleged enemies of leader Mao Zedong were forced into public confessions.
Hu Xijin, a prominent nationalist commentator, wrote that criticism should be “measured so as not to elevate his status”.
“As if a single careless manifestation of his could touch our great nation and hurt the feelings of our entire society.”
Meanwhile, Messi and long-time rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, on February 1, 2024, missed the Inter Miami vs Al Nassr match.
The showdown, tagged the Clash of the Titans was part of the Riyadh Season Cup.
Credit Gist New Today News in Newspaper Nigeria Headlines