Lionel Messi, the Argentine footballing legend, found himself at the centre of a brewing storm recently. His decision to skip a friendly match in Hong Kong while seemingly healthy for an upcoming game in Japan sparked outrage and disappointment among Chinese fans, igniting a firestorm on social media and raising questions about respect, politics, and brand partnerships.
The controversy erupted after Messi, despite being listed as fit to play, remained on the bench during the Hong Kong exhibition match. Fans, who had shelled out significant sums for tickets, felt disrespected and misled.
Discontent quickly spilt onto Weibo, China’s popular social media platform, where accusations of disrespect and even political motivations ran rampant. Comments like “Smiling in Japan but sulking in China, what can I say?” reflected the sentiment of many, drawing comparisons between Messi’s perceived enthusiasm for the Japan match and his apparent reluctance in Hong Kong.
This anger wasn’t limited to individual fans. Kenneth Fok, a Hong Kong sports lawmaker, voiced his frustration publicly, accusing Messi and his club, Inter Miami, of a lack of respect for local supporters. Even Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times, weighed in, questioning Messi’s decision not to shake hands with Hong Kong’s leader and demanding an apology.
The potential financial ramifications added another layer to the issue. Hundreds of users flooded the comments section of a Weibo post promoting a Chinese liquor brand endorsed by Messi, demanding the company severed ties with him. This highlights the vulnerability of foreign celebrities and brands to nationalistic sentiment in China, a trend that has intensified in recent years. Examples abound, from luxury brands facing criticism for listing Hong Kong or Taiwan as separate countries to the public backlash against JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s remarks about the bank’s longevity compared to the Chinese Communist Party.
While official government statements remained neutral, Hong Kong authorities expressed their “extreme disappointment” at Messi’s absence and lack of explanation. The event organizer, Tatler Asia, further fueled the flames by accusing Inter Miami of misleading them about Messi’s fitness and ignoring requests for him to address the fans. This added another layer of confusion and frustration to the already volatile situation.
The complexities of the situation extend beyond individual emotions. The underlying tension between China and Japan, fueled by historical grievances and territorial disputes, undoubtedly plays a role in some fans’ interpretations of Messi’s actions. While there’s no concrete evidence of any political motivations on Messi’s part, the perception itself speaks volumes about the heightened sensitivity in the region.
Furthermore, the incident raises questions about the increasingly intertwined worlds of sports, politics, and commercial partnerships. Athletes like Messi hold immense commercial value, often endorsing various brands across different countries. However, such global engagements can become entangled with local political sensitivities, creating a tightrope walk for both the athlete and the brands they represent.
Just days after the Hong Kong controversy, Messi’s scheduled appearance in Japan further complicates the picture. While some fans see it as a blatant disregard for Chinese supporters, others view it as simply fulfilling a prior commitment. Regardless of the interpretation, the situation underscores the challenges global sports stars face navigating the minefield of cultural and political differences.
The saga surrounding Messi’s no-show in Hong Kong is far from over. Its ripple effects will likely be felt for some time, impacting individual fan sentiment, brand partnerships, and potentially even the broader relationship between China and the world of international sports.