Disappointment, anger among Chinese fans magnified after Messi’s attitude turn in Japan
Published: Feb 07, 2024 10:32 PM Updated: Feb 07, 2024 10:40 PM
Left: Messi in Hong Kong. Right: Messi arrives in Japan.

Left: Messi in Hong Kong. Right: Messi arrives in Japan.

Three days after soccer star Lionel Messi's messy no-show fiasco in Hong Kong, the backlash has not cooled down. Instead, much more disappointment and anger were aroused when the Argentine star, who looked impassive and reluctant in Hong Kong, adopted a completely different demeanor in Japan.

On Wednesday night, Messi played for over 30 minutes in a not-so-packed stadium in Japan with seemingly high spirits, right after a statement was posted on his account on Chinese social media.

In the statement, the Argentine star claimed that he wanted to participate and it was a pity that he was stopped by a groin injury. Saying he would like to play in China again soon, he did not make an apology.

His statement, deemed as perfunctory by many, failed to quell the fans' anger. Many pointed out that in the Spanish-language part of the statement, Messi wrote "China" and "Hong Kong" side-by-side in parallel, an approach that clearly lacked respect for the Chinese fans to whom he was supposed to be apologizing. His different attitude in Japan also led many fans to question whether his actions go beyond soccer.

In the face of overwhelming demands for refunds and official apologies, Messi's club, Inter Miami, also broke its three-day silence over the huge letdown with a 468-word statement issued to some Hong Kong media outlets.

The club said it felt "compelled to reiterate the reality of these types of sports injuries," in light of the ongoing "headlines and negativity toward the different stakeholders," according to Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

It was deemed too risky for Messi to play, the club said in its statement on Wednesday, citing injuries, which the club called "part of the beautiful game."

Not bothering to address whether they will make a goodwill gesture or refund or reimburse fans, the club said they "would be eager to return to beautiful Hong Kong in the future, should the fans be open to receiving the club again."

Suspicious comparison

However, neither the club's or Messi's explanation satisfied Hong Kong officials and furious fans, with many pointing out that the star seemed to have become another person after arriving in Tokyo right after leaving Hong Kong.

"Messi seems to no longer show any sign of injury and has been involved in various commercial activities. He is also very friendly toward fans, which is completely different from his demeanor in Hong Kong," many netizens commented, suspecting that his significant change in attitude goes beyond the game.

The Hong Kong Police Force has received at least six reports regarding Messi and has already referred them to the Customs and Excise Department for further investigation, as reported by Hong Kong media. Meanwhile, the Consumer Council of Hong Kong stated on Wednesday that they have received 547 related complaints, involving a total amount of HK$3.64 million (US$465,466). The highest individual case involves approximately HK$24,000, with an average of HK$6,650. Out of these complaints, 461 are from local consumers and 86 are from visitors.

John Lee, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), also on Tuesday voiced support for fans' demands for refunds.

"As a fan, what angers me the most is not that Messi couldn't play, but the feeling of being deceived and disrespected," a fan surnamed Wang, who traveled from South China's Guangdong Province to watch the match, told the Global Times, noting there was no goodwill, no compensation and no apology, which is unacceptable.

"An apology may not change much, but it is necessary," another fan with the surname Mo, who traveled from Shanghai to Hong Kong for the game, told the Global Times. "Messi's inaction, whether intentional or unintentional, is a lack of respect."

These fans who have not received compensation or an apology are clearly angrier after witnessing Messi's attitude and actions upon arrival in Japan.

Messi attended pre-match training in Japan without showing any discomfort. Unlike in Hong Kong, he participated in commercial activities and took photos with other celebrities in Japan. At the same time, he greeted fans with a smile, which is in stark contrast to his expressionless and hands-in-pocket reaction when he skipped the awards ceremony where the players were supposed to be awarded by the Hong Kong Chief Executive.

Angry Chinese fans flooded Messi's and Miami International's shareholder David Beckham's social media accounts, accusing the events in Hong Kong of being deceitful and shameful. They left thousands of comments demanding an apology and refund, and questioned whether the incident is beyond the soccer game.

Messi could certainly choose to play in Japan after missing the match in Hong Kong, but it will make everyone would feel unhappy and uncomfortable, Kevin Yeung, Hong Kong's secretary for culture, sports and tourism said.

Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, reiterated on Wednesday night that Messi, Inter Miami and the organizers need to give the public a proper explanation. "As a legislator representing the sports sector, the incident must not be allowed to end here," he wrote.

The team's performance and arrangements in Japan were undoubtedly rubbing salt into the wounds of Hong Kong fans, he said.

Immaturity in organization

Since China emerged from pandemic restrictions a year ago, high-profile commercial overseas soccer club events have been held in various cities, but have also brought a series of problems, especially in ticketing. For example, ticket prices for the Inter Miami-Hong Kong match range from HK$880 to HK$4,880, far more than for average soccer matches. The extremely high ticket prices also angered buyers, who demanded that the promised rights be guaranteed.

Just two weeks ago, international soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo also had a somewhat chaotic trip to China. According to the original schedule, Ronaldo was supposed to participate in two warm-up matches against Chinese clubs in Shenzhen on January 24 and 28. However, due to an injury, he was unable to play, and the organizers announced the postponement of the games on January 23, one day before the first game, promising to fully refund the tickets and reimburse the travel expenses of out-of-town fans. Ronaldo also expressed his apologies to the fans.

Although the organizer agreed to refund the tickets, it still caused chaos. Many fans questioned whether the organizer delayed the announcement in order to hold pre-event commercial activities or demanded Ronaldo to interact with fans in other ways. Some fans even broke through the security and rushed into the hotel where the team were staying.

The organizers were willing to compromise certain bottom-line terms in order to profit from the "international superstar" as a valuable resource. However, at the same time, they did not have the ability to control this core resource. The whole thing is just a gamble, Guangzhou-based sports commentator Luo Ranfeng told the Global Times. He added that if the other party does not act according to the plan, it is easy to end up losing everything, which should be the biggest lesson learned from these recent incidents involving the two commercial overseas club events.

According to the announced fixtures, Argentina national team is scheduled to come to Hangzhou and Beijing for two matches in March. After the letdown, many netizens expressed on social media that Chinese fans still welcome the Argentina team, but no longer welcome Messi, who lacks respect for the fans.

Mo, the Messi fan, told the Global Times that although Messi's recent behavior will undoubtedly affect his reputation, it will still be "very easy" to find fans willing to spend money to watch Argentina's matches. "As a top-level match, the quality is definitely far higher than a friendly against Inter Miami for commercial reasons," he said. "But I won't be willing to pay a high price or even more than face value to watch Messi play like I would before."

Wang, another Messi fan, mentioned a previous upset when an Inter Miami match in Chengdu was announced and then canceled by the organizers in January. "Because of that farce, I lost hundreds of yuan in transportation fees. This time in Hong Kong, I have once again been deceived and disrespected by Messi and the team," he said. "I will never go to watch any match Messi plays in China again."