Footballer Lionel Messi tells Chinese fans no politics at play in Hong Kong no-show

Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi has told Chinese fans that his absence from a much-publicised Hong Kong match was not political, after he was accused of attempting to humiliate the city as it aimed to boost its international image.

YouTube videoYouTube video

In a video posted on Chinese social media platform Weibo on Monday night, Messi said it was “totally untrue” that he sat out the match earlier this month for political reasons. He repeated an earlier statement given to reporters that he had been suffering from inflamed leg muscles.

“I’ve had a very close and special relationship with China,” the Inter Miami footballer said, speaking Spanish in the video which included Simplified Chinese and English subtitles.

“I’ve done lots of things in China: interviews, games and events. I’ve also been there and played many times for FC Barcelona and the [Argentinian] national team.”

Messi’s two-minute video was the latest development in a saga that started when tens of thousands of fans were left disappointed after the footballer remained on the bench during a friendly match earlier this month, in which American football club Inter Miami was playing against local team Hong Kong XI.

The Consumer Council received over 1,350 complaints from local football fans and tourists who had travelled to Hong Kong for the game. Tatler Asia, which organised the match, said it would withdraw a bid for a HK$16 million government grant and announced it would offer fans a 50 per cent refund.

lionel messi
Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi. File photo: Jared Polin/Flickr. Credit: Stephen Eckert

Amid the fiasco, China’s state-run Global Times said in an editorial that there were possible “political motives” behind Messi’s no-show. The editorial suggested that external forces were “deliberately seeking to embarrass Hong Kong” as the city sought to attract more international events.

Senior government advisor and lawmaker Regina Ip blamed a “black hand,” calling the incident a “deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong.”

The Beijing Football Association has since cancelled two of Argentina’s friendly matches – against Nigeria in Hangzhou and Ivory Coast in Beijing – slated for March. The South American country’s team, captained by Messi, had earlier announced a tour in China.

‘Special affection’ for China

Mainland China is home to a growing football market, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping a self-proclaimed football fan who has expressed hope of China becoming a global football powerhouse.

Tatler Asia chair Michel Lamunière meets the press on February 5, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.Tatler Asia chair Michel Lamunière meets the press on February 5, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Tatler Asia chair Michel Lamunière meets the press on February 5, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Messi’s Weibo video attracted around close to 60,000 likes by noon on Tuesday, with most comments speaking positively of the football star. They also said they understood that Messi was injured and would not have been able to recover overnight.

“I believe this footballer who I have always loved would never have any bias… football is pure, and so is he,” one Chinese comment read.

In his video, Messi said he sent “good wishes to everyone in China who I’ve always had special affection for.”

The government said it welcomed Tatler Asia’s decision to offer a 50 per cent refund for those who purchased tickets. It added that authorities still hoped that Inter Miami would offer an explanation about Messi’s absence from the pitch to local and international fans who had travelled to the city for the game.

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