2017-05-15 11:13:38

Argentine soccer star Ezequiel Lavezzi has been accused of racism after a photo was circulated online in which the Chinese-employed striker appears to pull at the corners of his eyes, a gesture widely considered insulting to East Asian people.

The image began trending on international social media on Friday and soon spread to Chinese microblogging site Weibo, where hashtags bearing Lavezzi’s name in Mandarin became one of the most-clicked topics. The striker, who plays for Chinese Super League club Hebei China Fortune F.C. and is one of the highest-paid players in the world, is seen wearing the club’s red training jersey and smiling into the camera while making the offending gesture.

Promotional photo of Ezequiel Lavezzi, tweeted on May 12, 2017. From Twitter user ‘DreyerChina’

Promotional photo of Ezequiel Lavezzi, tweeted on May 12, 2017. From Twitter user ‘DreyerChina’

In China, many people remain unaware that making the “slant-eyed” gesture is a form of racial discrimination against East Asians. While certain net users were incensed by the photo — with some calling on Lavezzi to “piss off out of China” — others were more willing to give the South American forward the benefit of the doubt.

Hu Rongzhi, a soccer fan who lives in Beijing, told Sixth Tone that the matter should be kept in perspective. “He’s the type of player who likes to joke around,” Hu said. “Besides the huge payday, I think he came to China because he likes the country. There’s no need to blow [the gesture] out of proportion.”

“It’s very possible that Lavezzi made an honest mistake,” Zhou Wuji, operator of Beijing-based English soccer promoter Super Sports Media, told Sixth Tone on Monday.

“He previously played in South America and Europe, where this action might be considered more common,” Zhou continued. “However, he and his team should be more careful with what they say and do, so that they can lead from the front. They neglected to consider that such a gesture would be infinitely amplified,” he concluded.

Statements released Sunday by both Lavezzi and Hebei China Fortune rebutted accusations that the player had deliberately engaged in racially discriminatory behavior. “The photo was taken before the start of the season, when all my teammates and I responded to requests for an official photo shoot for the Chinese Super League,” wrote Lavezzi. “Under the demands of the Chinese Super League’s official photographer, I struck some fun and relaxed poses to create an entertaining atmosphere during the session.”

“Later, the photo was published on the Chinese Super League’s official webpage,” the statement continued. “I personally never [had] the intention to ‘humiliate’ anyone of Chinese nationality.”

Lavezzi’s words did little to placate some users of Chinese microblogging site Weibo. “Squinting one’s eyes is discrimination,” read a highly-uprated comment. “If you don’t know, ask your foreign friends. It’s disgraceful.”

Hebei China Fortune also distanced themselves from the photo, saying that they had never published it or used it for promotional material. “Since joining the club in 2016, Lavezzi has always been on good terms with his teammates,” the club’s statement read.

“He is beloved by the fans and has spoken often about his love for China,” the statement continued, saying that the club had already spoken with Lavezzi on the matter, and expressing regret that they were unable to anticipate that such a gesture would lead to “misunderstandings and controversy.”

In recent years, Chinese soccer teams have spent the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in transfer fees and player salaries as they have attempted to lure big-name players from more established European leagues, and to realize the government’s aim of turning the country into a global soccer superpower.

Hebei China Fortune, who were only founded in 2010 and currently sit fourth in the Chinese Super League, signed the now-32-year-old Lavezzi from French heavyweights Paris Saint-Germain in February last year for a reported 6 million euros (around $6.5 million). His weekly wage of a reported $516,000 easily eclipses that of F.C. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo — widely believed to be the world’s two best players — but falls short of the reported $760,000 per week paid to Argentine compatriot Carlos Tévez, who signed for mid-table team Shanghai Greenland Shenhua in December last year.

To some net users, Lavezzi’s lavish salary made the photo even more offensive. “This guy’s salary is even higher than Messi’s,” wrote another user. “He discriminates against Chinese people while earning his money from us.”

Contributions: Qian Zhecheng; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Ezequiel Lavezzi during a soccer match in France, April 9, 2015. Imago/VCG)