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How Lionel Messi’s failed guest appearance became a political affair

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How Lionel Messi’s failed guest appearance became a political affair

After Lionel Messi’s lackluster performance in Hong Kong, the Argentine world champions are now also unwelcome in China. Football relations between the West and the Far East have changed fundamentally.

Angry fans: The spectators wanted to see Messi play – now they want their money back.

Louise Delmotte / AP

The Mongkok Stadium in the middle of Hong Kong can only accommodate 7,000 spectators, but for the first time in a long time the local cup final is not sold out. “That doesn’t surprise me,” says football historian Chun Wing Lee, looking irritated at the empty stands. “The attention is completely elsewhere at the moment. Everyone only talks about Messi.”

Ten days have passed since the Argentine world champion visited Hong Kong with his club Inter Miami. Messi did not play in front of 40,000 spectators in the larger Hong Kong Stadium and barely communicated with the spectators, who had paid up to 550 francs for a ticket. The fans booed and felt disrespected. The topic dominated social networks and escalated when Messi was at least substituted on in Tokyo three days later. In Japan, of all places, some users commented that Hong Kong was occupied during the Second World War.

Messi is being taken in by many sides

Lionel Messi embodies the globalization of football like no other, but the incident in Hong Kong shows how quickly commercial success can be jeopardized. “Messi is being taken over by China-critical and China-friendly commentators alike,” says Chun Wing Lee, who has been researching football in Hong Kong and China for a long time. “There are conspiracy theories among them, but many people take this content seriously.”

Messi also received invitations to visit a stadium construction site and sports projects in Hong Kong. This would have been an advertising platform for local politicians and sports officials who sympathize with Beijing. Human rights activists interpreted Messi’s failure to accept these invitations as solidarity with imprisoned activists. An anecdote circulated on the Internet that the Chinese writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was a fan of Messi. Shortly before his death in 2017, Liu is said to have written to FC Barcelona asking for an autograph from then Barça player Messi.

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Messi’s nationality is also being discussed. Javier Milei, President of Argentina since December, was critical of China and rejected his country’s accession to the Brics association, in which Beijing plays the leading role. Messi, it was said in comments, supported this attitude.

The reason for China’s displeasure: Three days after the guest appearance in Hong Kong, Messi was at least substituted on in Tokyo against Vissel Kobe.

Naoki Nishimura / Reuters

The majority of spectators were from mainland China who attended Inter Miami’s guest game in Hong Kong. The outrage in the People’s Republic is all the greater. State-run newspapers such as the Global Times questioned the reasoning that Messi did not play due to an injury. Commentators have linked Inter Miami to the CIA, reports Austrian sports sociologist Tobias Zuser, who researches in Hong Kong. For them, Messi’s lack of interest in Hong Kong was a show of force by the USA.

The organizers in Hong Kong, Inter Miami and Messi tried to calm things down in statements, but many fans in China demanded a clearer apology. At the weekend, the Chinese Football Association announced that the Argentine national team would not travel to China. Games in Hangzhou against Nigeria and in Beijing against Côte d’Ivoire were planned for March. In addition, a number of fans called for a boycott of Messi’s sponsors.

A few years ago, China was still considered an important growth market for top international clubs

In recent years, the People’s Republic has broken off relations with Western sports organizations several times, albeit in response to statements critical of China by footballers such as Mesut Özil, who addressed the oppression of the Muslim Uyghurs, or by officials such as the American basketball manager Daryl Morey, who is involved with the democracy movement Hong Kong had shown solidarity. The fact that Beijing is now reacting so severely after a relatively harmless incident involving Messi shows how much football relations between the West and the Far East have changed.

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Just a few years ago, China was considered an important growth market for top clubs from Europe and the USA. Clubs such as FC Bayern, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United opened offices or supported youth academies in Beijing or Shanghai. China’s economy invested in its own football structures and promoted the entry of state-affiliated entrepreneurs into European clubs such as Inter Milan or Espanyol Barcelona.

As nationalism grew under President Xi Jinping, this strategy was increasingly undermined. Now China is using football as a platform to express its increased self-confidence compared to the West. Also with the help of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, in which not only politics and justice, but also football are increasingly being determined by Beijing. Hong Kong’s football association recently had to expand its official name; it is now called “Hong Kong, China”.

With Inter Miami’s guest appearance, the organizer “Tatler Asia”, a luxury magazine, wanted to reactivate the interest of foreign investors and music stars in Hong Kong. That went wrong. After public pressure, the company wants to reimburse half of the ticket costs for the game. Lionel Messi, however, remains: an unwanted guest.

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