Messi’s Tokyo comeback sparks fury in Hong Kong and China


Soccer superstar apologizes for sitting out Hong Kong match, but one politician says people now ‘hate’ him.

Messi’s Tokyo comeback sparks fury in Hong Kong and China

Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi, left, is challenged by Vissel Kobe’s Yosuke Ideguchi during the second half of the friendly match at the National Stadium in Tokyo on Feb. 7, 2024.

Feeling snubbed, Chinese state media and Hong Kong politicians have lashed out at Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi for playing in a match in Tokyo three days after sitting out a much-anticipated game in Hong Kong with a groin injury.

“Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter-Miami, and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong,” senior Chinese government adviser and former Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip said via her X account, referring to Messi’s U.S. club.

“Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong,” she posted. “His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting.”

The Communist Party-backed Wen Wei Po said in an editorial that Messi’s non-appearance was “premeditated manipulation,” asking if there was a “huge and mysterious mastermind” behind the incident.

The Ta Kung Pao, also backed by the party, went so far as to speculate that there may be a link between Inter Miami and the CIA. In a front-page article, it claimed that the father of the club’s founders Jorge and Jose Mas was Cuban exile Jorge Lincoln Mas Canosa, who “fled to Miami in 1960 and worked extensively with the CIA.”

Some people also claimed that Messi deliberately avoided shaking the hand of Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee after the match.

Apology… to no avail

Messi apologized to fans in a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo on Wednesday, saying he sat out the match due to a “swollen and painful” groin injury.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I always want to play… especially in these games where we travel so far and people are excited to see our games. Hopefully we can come back and play a game in Hong Kong,” he wrote in Chinese and Spanish.

But China’s nationalistic newspaper the Global Times, which has close ties to ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, said that wasn’t enough. 

It wanted to know why he had managed to play for 30 minutes in Tokyo on Wednesday night, suggesting that a March fixture between China and Argentina could now be in jeopardy.

In a front page op-ed piece, the paper said it hoped for a “reasonable explanation” from Messi before he takes part in two scheduled fixtures for Argentina in China in March.

“The disappointment of the [Hong Kong] government and the fans is entirely understandable. The impact of this incident has far exceeded the realm of sports,” it said of the match, in which 38,000 fans turned up to see Messi play, with some booing when it became obvious that wouldn’t happen.

“Anyone who deviates from the original intention of this sport, regardless of their motive, will not achieve good results,” it said.

Chinese footballer Xu Zexin followed up with a Weibo post claiming that the Chinese Football Association had “suspended cooperation with the Argentinian Football Association” over the incident.

“It is understood that @Chinese_Football_Association has suspended relevant cooperation with the Argentine Football Association, including the Argentine national team,” Xu wrote.

“At the same time, the Chinese Football Association has deleted all news about Lionel Messi from its official website,” he said, adding that there had been several items on the site before.

However, a Google search for Messi’s Chinese name on the site turned up several articles about the player.

Xu also claimed in his post that “Argentina’s trip to China in March is likely to be canceled.”

Demanding explanations

Hong Kong officials have demanded an explanation from match organizers, who have since withdrawn an application for a government grant linked to the match, Lee, the Hong Kong chief, told reporters on Feb. 6.

Lee also appeared to suggest that the government wasn’t fully familiar with the full details of the contractual agreements for the match that were in force between promoters Tatler Asia and U.S.-based pro soccer team Inter Miami.

“While the organizer has … withdrawn the application for the subsidy for the sponsorship, they still have the responsibility to explain to members of the public, particularly those who have bought tickets to get into the stadium to watch the match,” Lee said.

“It is their responsibility … to answer to the disappointment of all the audience there, in particular, those young children who were there with full passion and hope.”

“We will keep on urging the organizer to explain to the public in detail what actually happened, what were the details of the agreement between them and the team,” Lee added.

Joseph Ngan, former assistant controller at Hong Kong’s i-CABLE News, told the RFA Cantonese financial talk show “Speak Freely” that the government had “mishandled” the arrangements for the match.

“This was to have been an event funded by [the government], we can see their negligence throughout the entire approval process, the way officials handled it,” Ngan said. “Especially now that [Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism] Kevin Yeung has broken the news that the government itself didn’t fully understand the terms of the contract between Tatler Asia and Inter Miami.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Ngan said, in a reference to earlier comments from Yeung to a Hong Kong radio station, and a report by broadcast CNBC alleging that the entire funding application was rushed, condensed from what is normally a six-month process to a few weeks.

45-minute commitment

According to Yeung, the organizers had committed to have Messi play for at least 45 minutes, or half of the 90-minute match, during the fixture, but that they had only submitted “preliminary details” of the contractual agreements between all parties during their application for government funding.

“The other party provided preliminary information but the details consisted of sensitive business information, so we didn’t need to know the details of every item,” Yeung said.

Hong Kong’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau said in a later statement that it was very disappointed that Messi could not play in Hong Kong due to injury, but pointed to his participation in a similar match against Japan’s Vissel Kobe in Tokyo on Wednesday

“Three days later, Messi was able to play actively and freely in Japan … the government hopes the organizers and teams can provide reasonable explanations,” the department said in comments reported by Reuters.

Comments on Reddit under the viral video of Messi sidling away as players lined up to receive post-match medals from Lee suggested he could have been making a political point in the wake of a widespread crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.

But other comments pointed out that Lee was shaking the hands of players and handing out medals to those who took part in the match, and that it was natural for Messi not to be among them, as he didn’t actually play.

Hong Kong current affairs commentator Sang Pu said it was possible that Messi’s actions in Hong Kong were politically motivated, pointing to attempts in 2017 to send a signed photo of Messi to Liu Xia, wife of late Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, while she was under house arrest at the couple’s home in Beijing.

But he said Messi may have felt unable to make any public criticisms while on tour with Inter Miami.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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