Sunday, June 23, 2024
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‘A thuggish flamingo’: Why China turned on Lionel Messi

The video, posted on the pages of the South China Morning Post, was simple and inflammatory in its headline: “Why Hong Kong Hates Messi”.

There followed a monologue by the publication’s managing editor, Yonden Lhatoo, in which he chastised Lionel Messi, the Argentine World Cup winner and the prized asset of MLS team Inter Miami.

“All petulant in pink like some thuggish flamingo,” Lhatoo says of Messi, before adding: “Everyone looking at him might as well have been staring at a ballerina in a tutu.”

For Messi, this is one of the more flattering descriptions during a bewildering period in which he has found himself at the centre of geopolitical, cultural and sporting tensions cutting across Hong Kong, China, the United States, Japan and Argentina.


Fans boo Messi in Hong Kong (Getty Images)

For the uninitiated, Messi’s Inter Miami, co-owned by David Beckham and the construction billionaire Jorge Mas, embarked upon a lucrative pre-season tour across Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and Japan. This was Messi’s first tour since Inter Miami stole in ahead of the Saudi Pro League to secure Messi’s services, in a deal that also lured in revenue-sharing agreements with major brands Apple and Adidas.

Messi is big business, as underlined by a string of commercial deals with Adidas, Pepsi, Budweiser, Ooredoo, Pro Evolution Soccer, Louis Vuitton, the Israeli company Orcam, his own Cirque du Soleil show, the Chinese dairy company Mengniu, the crypto fan token firm Socios and the NFT-based game Sorare.

His appeal is huge, underlined by almost 500 million Instagram followers and more than eight million followers on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. His presence on this tour ought to have turbocharged Inter Miami’s global status, hitting key markets in the Middle East and Asia. The problem, however, came when Messi experienced physical discomfort in his adductor and an MRI scan showed an edema, swelling caused by too much fluid trapped in the body’s tissues. Messi first played only seven minutes as a substitute in an exhibition match against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Saudi side Al Nassr in Riyadh, a game that had been billed by the Saudis as a final face-off between the duo.

In Riyadh, there was disappointment, but Messi’s appearance as a substitute soothed the dismay of officials in Saudi Arabia, where Messi is an ambassador of the tourism board. In Hong Kong, however, where Messi did not play at all, the rows and recriminations rumble on. And spectacularly so.


Inter Miami’s fixture against a Hong Kong XI had been vigorously promoted and attracted a near-capacity crowd of 38,323. The promoter, Tatler Asia, trailed the fixture as “more than a football match”. They said the two-day festival, entitled Tatler XFEST, would bring together sports and entertainment to be “the most highly anticipated event of the year and elevate Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s World City”.

Yet Messi did not play, while his heralded team-mate Luis Suarez also didn’t play despite appearing at the pre-match press conference one day earlier. Former Barcelona stars Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba only came on after the 60-minute mark. Messi’s image was central at the heart of a billboard and social media campaign to promote the fixture and supporters paid up to HK$5,000 (£510; $640) for a ticket. They felt ripped off, as disgruntled fans booed and shouted “wui seoi”, which is the Cantonese term for refund. Then came the chants of “We want Messi”. After the match, David Beckham, once a darling of Hong Kong football fans, attempted to address supporters with a post-match speech, only to also be booed.

The Tatler Asia chairman and chief executive Michel Lamuniere told The Athletic he had only discovered Messi would not play “15 minutes before the start” of the game. He added: “The rest of the first half was spent trying to find solutions for Messi to play, talking, and moving around the pitch.”

Lamuniere added the event was “perfectly organised except for the lack of visibility regarding Messi’s injury, of which we had no idea”.

It is not the end of the matter, as Lamuniere says the agreement between Tatler and Inter Miami stipulated that Messi, Busquets, Alba and Suarez “had to play a minimum of 45 minutes unless injured”.

Yet Alba and Busquets arrived on the hour mark. Did this constitute a breach of the agreement and therefore a reduction in Miami’s fees for appearing?

Lamuniere added: “We are assessing all options and engaging with all partners to discuss possible solutions. This does not include only Inter Miami but all parties involved, including the Hong Kong government and agents. We have been in constant communication with the club, including co-owner David Beckham, and at Tatler, we always seek to find solutions with transparent and constructive communication.” Inter Miami declined to comment.

Tatler have taken a hefty blow themselves after the Consumer Council of Hong Kong received more than 600 complaints within three days of the fixture, which took place on February 4. By the Friday, Tatler announced it would refund 50 per cent of the ticket price for supporters, which will lead to over $5m in losses from the event. The Hong Kong government, via The Major Sports Events Committee, had granted $1.92m for the event along with a six-figure grant for the venue, but this has been pulled. In the days that followed, Messi ran into choppier waters.

Tensions were further strained when he appeared for Inter Miami in a friendly in Japan on February 7, just 72 hours after declaring himself unfit to play in Hong Kong, and Messi found himself the target of a hate campaign by local politicians and on social media. His Argentina national team was then dragged into the mess when their two friendly fixtures in China, scheduled for March, were abruptly cancelled by authorities in mainland China.


To understand these developments, we must first understand the political and social context within Hong Kong. The Inter Miami tour corresponded with renewed attempts by the Hong Kong authorities to restore its image as a global destination for sporting and cultural events after several years of protest against the government and strict lockdowns enforced during the Covid-19 pandemic. Hong Kong’s own immigration statistics show the city received 34 million people in 2023, which is just over half the number that visited in 2018.

Sam Goodman is a senior policy director at the China Strategic Risks Institute and an advisor to Hong Kong Watch. The latter company has previously been targeted under Hong Kong’s National Security Law.


Messi didn’t come off the bench (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

Goodman says: “You have essentially had three years of pretty draconian crackdown on basic rights in the city. They’ve arrested a bunch of pro-democracy activists, former lawmakers and journalists. They’ve now proposed another security law, for which the consultation was released a couple of days before Inter Miami went to Hong Kong. It includes extending the state secrets law in mainland China to Hong Kong, clamping down on basic information being able to leave the city, whether that’s financial information or information about the Hong Kong government’s foreign policy.

“That’s the backdrop for this game. A lot of human rights organisations were quite upset that Inter Miami went. They felt they were whitewashing the human rights problems in Hong Kong at a particularly sensitive time when you’d had statements from governments in Europe and the U.S. of concern.”

The Hong Kong chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu has argued the law is in the interests of national security and key to improving the economy, but it has been widely seen by critics as evidence of China’s increasing control over Hong Kong. Goodman warns it is heading in the direction of becoming “indistinguishable” from Chinese cities.

A signal of Hong Kong’s struggles was signposted when Taylor Swift’s global “Eras Tour” skipped the city, as Harry Styles and Coldplay also have in recent times, with salt rubbed into the wounds when they elected to visit rival destinations such as Tokyo and Singapore.

Plenty, therefore, was riding on Messi to reawaken Hong Kong. Tatler Asia, the organiser of the Inter Miami visit, said: “Our aspiration was to create an iconic moment in support of the government’s efforts to remind the world how relevant and exciting Hong Kong is. That dream is broken today for us and all those who bought tickets to see Messi on the pitch.”


Against this backdrop, the Hong Kong government was anxious about the failure of the event. As such, the buck was passed. The Major Sports Events Committee (MSEC) said that “the government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organisers’ arrangement” adding that Tatler Asia owes supporters “an explanation”.

Messi had caused offence not only by failing to play but also by not shaking hands with Lee during a trophy presentation at the end of the game. The South China Morning Post video accused Messi of “skulking at the back” to avoid Hong Kong’s leader.

Lee added fuel to the flames engulfing Tatler Asia, arguing that “the performance of the organiser has an impact on Hong Kong’s image and reputation”.

On regional social media, the pressure became overwhelming. One video showed a supporter flying through the air to decapitate Messi’s head from a cardboard cut-out of Inter Miami players. Another showed a supporter cutting up his Messi replica jerseys with a pair of scissors.


Messi’s participation was heavily advertised before the game (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

Hong Kong legislative councillor Kenneth Fok transferred the blame beyond the organisers and onto Messi. He wrote on Weibo, in a post that gained more than one million likes, that Messi ought to have spoken to fans. He said: “It’s unclear whether this approach is too difficult for the ‘King of Football’, or is it because he is too popular and sought after and has become numb to cheers?”

Lobo Louie, associate head of the department of health and physical education at Education University in Hong Kong, was quoted as saying the player was not on crutches and therefore should have played, even suggesting an agreement be made with the opposition team to not go in hard on Messi.

Then Messi made his 30-minute appearance in Inter Miami’s friendly match against Vissel Kobe in Tokyo, Japan, and all hell broke loose.

Hong Kong’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau noted in a statement how “three days later, Messi was able to play actively and freely in Japan”. They added that the government hopes the organisers and teams can provide reasonable explanations. The hashtag “medical miracle” trended on Weibo.

The Chinese state-affiliated newspaper Global Times published an editorial on the Wednesday evening, claiming “external forces” who want to undermine Hong Kong may have been behind Messi’s no-show. They argued the fact Messi appeared in every other pre-season game besides Hong Kong “magnified suspicions” about Messi and Inter Miami’s integrity.

Regina Ip, the convenor of the Hong Kong Executive Council, wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter Miami and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong.”

She added: “Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong. His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting.”

Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California (USC), specialises in Chinese politics and society.

“The black hand is an old trope,” Rosen explains. “Everything has to be blamed on foreign forces. It can never be the fault of China or Hong Kong. Therefore, it has to be the fault of the United States, its allies and subordinates, whether they be Western Europe, Japan or South Korea.”

Goodman, senior policy director at the China Strategic Risks Institute, adds: “It’s a one-size-fits-all perception of external enemies, these people who ‘just don’t want us to succeed’. You have these local lawmakers who are all falling over themselves to be more hardline than the next to try to curry favour with (Chinese President) Xi Jinping.”

The conspiracy theories continued. On Weibo, some users pointed out that the late father of Jorge Mas, the co-owner of Inter Miami, was an anti-Fidel Castro Cuban exile, while Mas himself is the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation. In this theory, the Mas family are anti-communist and therefore hostile to China. “The possibility of direct intervention by relevant U.S. forces cannot be ruled out,” read one post. A state-owned Chinese newspaper, Ta Kung Pao, then published a report on Thursday, linking the fact that Mas’ father was trained by the U.S. CIA in the 1960s for the Bay of Pigs operation against the Cuban government. There is no evidence at all to say that Messi’s actions were directed by Mas or that the Inter Miami owner has a personal issue with China.


The Jorge Mas conspiracy on Weibo

Messi made attempts to calm the storm. He published a message, in Chinese and Spanish, on his Weibo account before the game took place in Tokyo.

He said: “It was a real shame not to be able to play in Hong Kong the other day due to a groin injury that had swollen and I was in pain.”

He added: “Anyone who knows me knows that I always want to play, that’s what I always want, to do my best in any game. And especially in these games when we travel so far and fans are excited to see us attend the game healthily.”

Yet he received fresh criticism because the IP address accompanying the message suggested the message originated in Sichuan, China, more than 3,000km from where Messi actually was in Tokyo. This led some users to question whether Messi himself posted the message.

On Instagram, Messi received a deluge of criticism and abuse. Underneath one of Messi’s Instagram posts, a user replied: “My Chinese classmate saved the money from his work-study program and flew to Hong Kong to watch your game. He cried when he came back and threw away the poster and jersey he had put up for three years.” It was liked 40,000 times.

Messi then posted a photo with his family last weekend and heavily liked responses included gifs of his rival Cristiano Ronaldo, Chinese flags and one message that read: “China does not welcome dwarves like you and please tell your Argentina football fans that the Falkland Islands belongs to England.”

Messi’s partnerships with Chinese companies were next under threat. Users on Weibo challenged the Chi Shui He liquor brand to end its relationship with him.

The decision to enter the field in Tokyo sprinkled “salt on the wounds”, according to Hong Kong lawmaker Kenneth Fok.

Why is turning out in Japan so provocative? Goodman explains: “First of all, the historical reasons of World War II. Ordinary Chinese citizens, although not people in Hong Kong, have been brought up on a steady diet for many years of anti-Japanese propaganda and recently, it’s been a lot worse. The Chinese government introduced import bans on Japanese seafood, claiming they were releasing radioactive water into the sea. Yet most people would argue that the reason they’re doing it is to drive up ethno-nationalism at a time when the economy is struggling and Japan is considered the historical rival of China.”

Rosen, an academic at USC, adds that opinion polls in the past year revealed that 92 per cent of Japanese people have a negative view of China, while 63 per cent of Chinese people had a negative view of Japan. Indeed, some social media memes mocked up Messi as an imperial Japanese soldier.


Messi playing in Japan angered many people in China (Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

Others in Hong Kong see the issue as more straightforward than geopolitics. Nigel, a Manchester United supporter in Hong Kong, told The Athletic: “A lot of the comments from the public in the U.S./Europe do not seem to have much sympathy for the fans in Hong Kong — we seem to be seen as entitled so-and-sos and some think we have a poor understanding of how football works.

“The root of the problem lies with the fact the game was heavily marketed as a chance to see Messi. Fans in this part of the world have very little, if any, chance to see top world-class footballers play live.”

Inter Miami, for its part, said in a statement to Reuters on Thursday that they were “sorry”. The club said: “We do feel it necessary to express that injuries are unfortunately a part of the beautiful game and our player’s health must always come first.”


End of story? Not quite. On Friday, February 9, a fresh twist. Sports authorities in Beijing and Hangzhou, both in mainland China, revealed they would no longer host two friendly matches that Messi’s Argentina national team had been slated to play in March against Ivory Coast and Nigeria.

The Hangzhou Sports Bureau said they would not host the match “in view of the reason everyone knows”.

The Beijing Football Association went further, name-checking Messi himself. “Recently, many fans and netizen friends have asked about Messi’s game in Beijing. Beijing currently has no plans to host relevant competitions in which Messi will participate.”

This has led long-term China-watchers to theorise that there may be more to this decision than simply the events of the past week. Argentina’s new president, Javier Milei, is a self-proclaimed “anarcho-capitalist” and while campaigning described the Chinese government as assassins and said he would not work with communists.

Political analysts Goodman and Rosen both note that China has previous for politically-motivated retaliation in the world of sport. For example, in 2019, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, set off an international storm when he tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong, just as the NBA was preparing to play games in Shanghai and Shenzhen. It led to a 28-month blackout of NBA on state-run Chinese Central Television (CCTV), with the exception of the the one-off broadcast of two NBA Finals games in October 2020. On a separate occasion, Arsenal’s English Premier League football game against Manchester City in December 2019 did not broadcast on CCTV after comments made by Arsenal’s then-midfielder Mesut Ozil, who criticised China’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority.

Rosen says: “It’s all interlinked. They’re going to retaliate with the one way they can. If they don’t retaliate, they’ve got this nationalistic base in China on social media that’s going to accuse the government of being weak. They’ve created this monster, which they can’t always control. When Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, flew to Taiwan, a lot of people on the nationalist component on social media were very upset that the Chinese didn’t shoot the plane down.”

The Argentina Football Association is now weighing up other locations for its friendly matches, with Indonesia and the United States under consideration, while local reports have also mooted Qatar or Saudi Arabia as possibilities.

Goodman concludes: “For Milei, he is a rabid anti-communist and therefore he has no love for the Chinese government and also he’s very keen to find a way to peg Argentina’s currency to the U.S. dollar, so he’s going to be in America’s camp as well. This is probably just very useful for him as well at home for his own narrative. It seems like there’s a lot of theatre going on. I guess the only people it doesn’t suit is Inter Miami, while Messi is probably scratching his head wondering what the hell is going on.”

Following this piece’s publication, Tatler Asia chairman Michel Lamuniere approached The Athletic requesting the following clarification was made.

Lamuniere said: “On Sunday, February 4, before kick-off, the official team sheet, a list of the players who are available to play in the game, which was submitted by the Inter Miami team and signed by the Head Coach Gerardo Martino, showed Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez as substitutes and therefore fit to play. Accordingly, Tatler Asia had every expectation that both would play.

“Fifteen minutes before the start of the game – I heard that there was a possible problem and that the IM medical staff were working on Messi in the hope he could still play. The rest of the first half was spent trying to find a solution for Messi to continue playing, talking and moving around the pitch.

“At half-time, when it was communicated by the Inter Miami CF club management that there would be no possibility for Messi to play in the game due to an injury, Tatler Asia immediately informed the government. Tatler Asia subsequently spent the second half urging the Inter Miami CF leadership to instruct Messi to address the fans, to no avail.”

Inter Miami declined to comment.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)


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