Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi sat out at a friendly football match in Hong Kong and caused a huge controversy.
To the visible disappointment of fans, Messi remained on the bench during the friendly between US soccer team Inter Miami and the Hong Kong team on Sunday Feb. 4.
In a press conference two days later, the 36-year-old player explained that pain from an injury he had experienced in previous matches persisted on the day of the Hong Kong match and that “the discomfort was still there and it was very difficult for [him] to play.”
“I can understand that people were looking forward to it and I hope that there will be another opportunity for me to play in Hong Kong,” he added.
Images of the day show some fans visibly annoyed, booing and putting their thumb down, after Messi did not take to the field.
One video shared online even showed a fan kicking a Messi poster following the match.
🇭🇰🌎⚽️— Aaron Busch (@tripperhead) February 4, 2024
A fan at Hong Kong Stadium reacts after Lionel Messi did not in fact play in Hong Kong on Sunday.
(📽️: forwarded online) pic.twitter.com/vTR8kagnE2
However, three days later, Messi played at least 30 minutes in another friendly match in Japan, sparking more anger from some Hong Kong fans and politicians.
The Global Times, a Chinese newspaper owned by China’s communist party, claimed that Messi’s injury was not “convincing” enough and that he had demonstrated “good physical condition” during the match in Japan.
It said that Messi’s action could be “politically motivated” and aimed at “embarrassing” Hong Kong.
“One theory is that their actions have political motives, as Hong Kong intends to boost economy through the event and external forces deliberately wanted to embarrass Hong Kong through this incident,” the op-ed said.
Fans had paid up to HK$4,880 (US$624) to see Messi play, and the op-ed said Hong Kong authorities had received more than 600 complaints and requests for refunds.
Event organizers had reportedly told government officials that Messi would play during the match against Hong Kong’s national team, according to BBC.
Some Hong Kong politician took to social media to express strong thoughts against the football player.
“Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter-Miami, and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong,” Hong Kong politician, Regina Ip, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong. His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting.”
Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong. His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting.— Regina Ip Lau Suk Yee (@ReginaIplau) February 7, 2024
However, others said the politician did not speak for all Hong Kongers and that the responsibility should lie with the organizers.
Last June, Messi went to China to participate in a sold-out international friendly match between Argentina and Australia, causing a huge fan craze.