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Anger Over Messi’s ‘Mess’ in Hong Kong Spreads to China, Taking a Geopolitical Turn

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Controversy over Lionel Messi’s failure to play in a soccer match in Hong Kong is showing no sign of ending, with many in China taking to social media to vent their frustration over his no-show.

Comments by Hong Kong sports lawmaker Kenneth Fok accusing Messi and his U.S. club Inter Miami of disrespecting local fans were among the top trending topics on Weibo on Wednesday. Another popular topic was partly entitled “Messi’s Mess.”

Many commentators drew comparisons between Messi’s behavior in Hong Kong and his demeanor in Japan, where he is scheduled to play in a friendly on Wednesday evening.

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In a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday, the Argentine World Cup winner said he felt better and he 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.

“Smiling in Japan but sulking in China, what can I say?” said one of the most upvoted comments. “He has picked a side and shown his politics. Don’t come back again.”

In another sign the saga is growing beyond Hong Kong, the former editor-in-chief of China’s Global Times, a nationalist tabloid, questioned Messi’s failure to play. In a post on X, Hu Xijin asked why the star didn’t shake hands with Hong Kong’s leader John Lee, and called for an apology to Chinese fans.

Public anger could threaten Messi’s partnerships with Chinese brands. Hundreds of users flooded the comment section of a Weibo post Messi made to promote the Chi Shui He liquor brand, with many calling on the company to cut ties with the Argentine.

China and Japan have a long history of bad blood due in large part to Japan’s colonial invasions and atrocities committed during World War II. Government ships from Japan and China regularly seek to expel one another from waters around disputed islands in the East China Sea. Yet Japanese businesses are some of the biggest foreign investors in China and it’s an important trade partner.

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Foreign individuals and brands regularly come under fire from nationalistic elements in China, with the pushback intensifying in recent years. In 2019 Christian Dior SE, Coach, Givenchy and Versace were criticized for identifying Hong Kong or Taiwan as separate countries from China. Two years later, Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s chief executive officer, apologized after quipping that his bank was likely to outlast China’s Communist Party.

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Messi, who is the public face of Saudi Arabia’s tourism campaign, is scheduled to play against Vissel Kobe at Japan National Stadium in Tokyo at 7 p.m. local time. It’s the final leg of Inter Miami’s global pre-season tour that’s seen the U.S. club only win one match — their game in Hong Kong.

While there’s been no official comment by Chinese authorities, Hong Kong’s government said in a statement authorities and soccer fans were “extremely disappointed that Messi could neither play in the friendly match nor explain to the fans in person upon request.”

The organizer of the event, Tatler Asia, on Monday chose to forfeit HK$16 million ($2 million) worth of government funding in the wake of the controversy. CEO Michel Lamuniere blamed Inter Miami for what transpired, saying the organizer was told Messi was fit to play at the start of the game. When it became clear he wouldn’t join the game, the team ignored appeals for Messi to address fans, Lamuniere said.

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Messi, 36, last played in mainland China in June, when he led Argentina in a friendly match against Australia at a packed Beijing stadium. His team is scheduled to return to China for exhibition games against Nigeria and Ivory Coast in March, according to the Argentine football association.

Inter Miami was established in 2018, making it one of the newer teams competing in Major League Soccer in the U.S. It was launched with the backing of former Manchester United FC, Real Madrid CF and LA Galaxy star David Beckham, who’s a co-owner.

Messi joined the club last year. Billionaire Jorge Mas, Inter Miami’s managing owner, said in a July interview that its value could reach $1.5 billion within a year.

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