For Lionel Messi, it should have been a few minutes of easy work.
But the Argentine soccer idol’s failure to leave the substitutes’ bench in a routine preseason exhibition match has unleashed an unexpected public relations nightmare in one of the world’s most lucrative sports markets where, until now, he had enjoyed widespread popularity.
The public backlash in China began Sunday when Messi didn’t appear for Major League Soccer club Inter Miami while in Hong Kong – and ramped up when he joined the team’s game in Japan just days later.
Messi, who was declared unfit to play in Hong Kong, came on as a 60th minute substitute against Vissel Kobe in Tokyo on Wednesday – an appearance that seemed to energize his teammates before they lost on penalty kicks.
Across social media in mainland China, scathing commentary on Messi was a dominant topic. One widely circulated video appears to show a blogger chopping up his collection of Messi jerseys with a pair of scissors.
Many on Chinese social media platform Weibo questioned how the star was able to make such a quick recovery three days after the Hong Kong game. The sarcastic hashtag “medical miracle” trended high with more than 1.3 million views.
Others lashed out against what they saw as disrespect for Hong Kong – and China.
“Messi must give Chinese fans and the Chinese people an explanation,” one user wrote in a comment liked 59,000 times.
“(He) played in five of the six preseason games and only missed the game in Hong Kong, China! Don’t come to China, China doesn’t welcome you,” another user wrote in a post liked by 20,000 others.
The backlash facing Messi, who has a huge fanbase in China, follows a litany of instances where foreign celebrities or brands have sparked ire in the country for perceived affronts.
The incident also comes as Hong Kong attempts to burnish its image as an international hub – even as it has come under increasing influence from mainland China, with Beijing tightening its control of the city and its government following mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.
And it highlights both the political and financial risks major brands can face in the midst of such a backlash.
As public – and official – anger mounted throughout the week, Hong Kong match organizer Tatler XFEST announced on Friday that it would refund 50% of the ticket price for fans, a move it said would cost the company $7.1 million and leave it facing nearly $5.5 million in losses.
“We have invested millions of dollars and months of hard work into bringing a world-class event to Hong Kong, the city that is our home and where we have been headquartered for more than 45 years,” the company, which publishes multiple Tatler branded magazines across Asia, said in their statement.
“Our aspiration was to create an iconic moment in support of the government’s efforts to remind the world how relevant and exciting Hong Kong is. That dream is broken today for us and all those who bought tickets to see Messi on the pitch,” the company added.
After the Hong Kong game, frustration and disappointment from fans in the city ballooned into outrage across mainland China, as influential voices like Hong Kong lawmaker Kenneth Fok and mainland Chinese political pundit Hu Xijin condemned the behavior of the player and the team.
“Why didn’t Messi play in Hong Kong or participate in the handshake with HK (the Hong Kong) chief executive? And why did he smile, run freely and looked fit in Japan?” Hu wrote on social platform X, referring to a moment during Sunday’s post-match trophy ceremony, as he called for an “explanation and apology.”
The location of the match appeared to add a sting for many – given historic animosity and modern-day frictions between China and Japan.
State-affiliated Global Times took the backlash a step further, on Wednesday night publishing an editorial noting a “theory” suggesting without evidence that Messi and Inter Miami’s actions could have been linked to efforts from “external forces” who wish to embarrass Hong Kong.
The Chinese government has not commented on the incident.
‘Not sincere at all’
A statement released on Messi’s official Weibo social media account minutes before the start of the match in Tokyo appeared as an attempt to calm the backlash.
“It was a real shame not to be able to play in Hong Kong the other day due to a groin injury that had swollen and I was in pain,” the post said, reiterating comments the player made to reporters in Tokyo Tuesday, adding that he hopes to return to both Hong Kong and mainland China.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I always want to play, that’s what I always want, to do my best in any game. And especially in these games when we travel so far and fans are excited to see us attend the game healthily,” said the statement, posted in both Chinese and Spanish.
But the statement’s IP address showed it was posted in China’s Sichuan province, some 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) from Tokyo, fueling derision online. Major social media platforms in China require users to show their IP address location. “This is not sincere at all,” one Weibo user wrote in response.
Other users were vitriolic. “Don’t ever come again if you can’t provide a reasonable explanation. You are polluting China’s air by being here. Support the Hong Kong government.”
The situation is the latest example of how backlash against brands or celebrities can quickly snowball in China’s highly nationalistic social media sphere – in some cases with the potential for significant business ramifications in the country’s major consumer market.
China’s so-called “wolf-warrior” diplomats and other government agencies have also made sharp public statements in such instances.
In one such incident in 2019, the National Basketball Association appeared at risk of losing its lucrative footing in the country after the general manager of the Houston Rockets expressed support for Hong Kong’s protesters.
Soccer is a massively popular sport in China and major clubs will often incorporate stops in the country on what can be highly profitable pre-season tours.
Ardent support for Messi gripped mainland China last summer after the Argentina national team played a friendly match against Australia in Beijing. That was the superstar’s seventh time in China, and his eighth could come in March when Argentina has two friendly matches scheduled in the country.
This week, the social media page of a Chinese liquor company whose product campaign features Messi was also inundated with comments calling for boycotts or “contract termination.”
Following the Hong Kong game, Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino explained the decision not to field Messi was made on very late notice and under the recommendation of the club’s medical staff. He also asked for fans’ forgiveness.
But it added: “We do feel it necessary to express that injuries are unfortunately a part of the beautiful game, and our player’s health must always come first.”
David Rowe, an emeritus professor at Western Sydney University focused on media and sport, said there could have been better communication with fans before and during the game.
“Messi is a human being not a machine or a replicant. However, these games are not mainly about football, but promotional and commercial exercises,” he said.
“In the case of Messi, is it more important that he performs in matches that mean very little in strict footballing terms, or preserves his body for actual competitive sport contests such as in MLS? Purist football fans would say the latter – but they are not the majority at touring exhibition games like this one.”
Hong Kong outrage
The furor comes as Hong Kong officials aim to restore the city’s international image, which has been damaged by years of stringent anti-Covid controls and a crackdown on civil liberties following the mass and at times violent 2019 pro-democracy protests.
The Inter Miami game was widely promoted by its organizer in the city for months, with Messi featured prominently in adverts. The sold-out game, with some tickets at eyewatering prices, featured as part of the city’s campaign to host “mega events” meant to drive a tourism rebound.
The Hong Kong government has issued multiple statements expressing its “extreme” disappointment with the outcome as it scrambled to respond to public anger over Sunday’s match – and avoid becoming its target.
On Wednesday after the Tokyo match, Hong Kong officials swiftly released a statement demanding Inter Miami explain how Messi appeared to have played so “actively and nimbly” at Japan’s National Stadium.
Several pro-Beijing politicians also took to the internet to slam Messi.
Among them, veteran lawmaker Regina Ip, also a top adviser to Hong Kong’s chief executive, called Messi’s snub “deliberate and calculated,” saying “his lies and hypocrisy are disgusting.” “Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong,” she wrote on X.
But some questioned whether such a response would help officials’ efforts to burnish Hong Kong’s appeal.
“Although the government has tried hard to woo the world back, mood swings and occasional outbursts have the opposite effects, undermining confidence because the climate has become more volatile and less predictable,” said Kenneth Chan, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, who drew parallels to the so-called “wolf-warrior” rhetoric used by officials on the mainland.
Many social media users in Hong Kong continued to criticize Messi and voice their frustration with the lost opportunity and perceived wasted funds, but others too questioned how the response would play out for the city.
One social media user noted that it was not only Messi who played in Tokyo, but not Hong Kong. The Japanese capital is also hosting pop superstar Taylor Swift this week for one of only two Asia stops on her Eras Tour.
“Tokyo is the real ‘capital of mega events,’” the user wrote.
This story has been updated.