By Alan Wong
Controversy over Lionel Messi’s failure to play in a football 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 US 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.
In a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday, the Argentinian 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 Argentinian.
The footballer last played in mainland China in June, when he led Argentina to play against Australia in a friendly match at a packed Beijing stadium. His team is scheduled to return to China to play exhibition games against Nigeria and Ivory Coast in March, according to the Argentine football association.
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 US club only win one match — their game in Hong Kong.