Mainland Messi Fanatics Rue Hong Kong Trip
As the controversy over Lionel Messi’s failure to appear in an exhibition match in Hong Kong continues to foment, fans who traveled across the border from the Chinese mainland to see the soccer superstar have been adding their voices to the chorus of disapproval.
The incident and resulting fallout have been viral on Chinese social media since the match on Sunday, with multiple hashtags hitting the top of microblogging platform Weibo’s trending list.
“It’s understandable that he did not play in the friendly match due to injury. But what everyone is angry about is Messi's attitude, putting on a bad face, not saying goodbye,” a soccer influencer with over 1 million followers wrote on Weibo on Tuesday.
Messi is hugely popular in China, having visited the country seven times before his latest visit to Hong Kong. His previous visit in June saw a young fan run onto the field to embrace him at the Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium, which led to the fan becoming a social media star as well as being detained by the authorities.
Elaine Wu, who did not provide her Chinese name for privacy reasons, told Sixth Tone that she and her friends were left disappointed after spending thousands of yuan to see the former FC Barcelona talisman in-person for the first time.
The three friends had taken a three-hour flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong on Friday, paying 2,000 yuan ($279) each for the flight tickets and 4,000 yuan each for the match.
As the match began, their excitement gradually turned into anger as Messi stayed on the substitutes’ bench for the entire match, reportedly due to an injury.
“We thought he would at least make an appearance near the end of the match, but after several player changes … we realized he was not going to play,” Wu told Sixth Tone.
The three friends joined in with the booing and hissing as fans in the sold-out Hong Kong Stadium gradually came to the same realization, with some of the anger directed at English soccer legend David Beckham, co-owner of Messi’s team Inter Miami, who was also in attendance.
Yang Haoran, a 24-year-old student from the southern city of Guangzhou studying at the City University of Hong Kong, said he joined in the booing as fans around him began leaving before the match ended: “The boos from the crowd were something I’ll probably never hear again in my life.”
A video he made documenting his experience on the day, shared on his social media, shows angry local fans shouting for refunds and comparing Messi unfavorably with rival soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
In late January, the Portuguese player also failed to play in scheduled matches with local teams during his visit to the Chinese mainland due to injury, resulting in fan backlash.
However, while Ronaldo’s matches were canceled ahead of time with refunds offered to fans, Messi’s match in Hong Kong was not canceled and there were no announcements of an injury before the match.
Match organizer Tatler Asia said in a statement Monday that it had expected Messi to play in the match as he was listed as a substitute. It did not say whether fans will be refunded.
“I hope there will be a refund,” said Wu. “Without Messi, the match wasn’t worth watching.”
For Wu and her friends, the experience has hurt Messi’s standing in their eyes as they previously admired him not only for his soccer talent but also his reputation as an honest family man.
“It’s one thing to not have played, it’s another thing to not give an explanation or interact with the fans, which felt disrespectful,” she said.
At a press conference on Tuesday in Tokyo, where Inter Miami is continuing its pre-season tour, Messi said it was a “shame” that he could not play in Hong Kong. The Argentina soccer captain added that he is ready to return to the soccer field in the Japanese capital.
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: Lionel Messi during the friendly soccer match in Hong Kong, Feb. 4, 2024. Hou Yu/CNS/VCG)