Messi is playing in a match that concerns integrity: Global Times editorial
Published: Feb 07, 2024 11:48 PM
Lionel Messi of Inter Miami reacts during the preseason friendly match between Hong Kong Team and Inter Miami at Hong Kong Stadium on February 4, 2024 in Hong Kong, China. Photo: VCG

Lionel Messi of Inter Miami reacts during the preseason friendly match between Hong Kong Team and Inter Miami at Hong Kong Stadium on February 4, 2024 in Hong Kong, China. Photo: VCG

The US Major League Soccer (MLS) club Inter Miami CF held a friendly match with Vissel Kobe on the evening of February 7. In contrast to the friendly match held three days ago in Hong Kong, Argentine player Lionel Messi came off the bench and played for 30 minutes, demonstrating good physical condition. Thus, the match in Hong Kong became the only one in Messi's six pre-season friendly matches on this trip where he was absent. Other players who attracted attention, including Luis Suárez, who did not play in Hong Kong, started the game on the evening of February 7. Previously, there were already voices questioning the differential treatment of Messi and Inter Miami. The situation in this match has magnified these doubts and suspicions on the integrity of Inter Miami and Messi himself.

Messi is a player with tremendous influence in the international sports community. After helping the Argentine team win the championship at the 2022 Qatar World Cup, his personal reputation reached its peak, and many fans consider him an inspirational idol. When Inter Miami came to Hong Kong for a friendly match, it attracted nearly 40,000 spectators. Some mainland fans traveled 12 hours from Xinjiang to Hong Kong just to see Messi. Hong Kong showed great enthusiasm from top to bottom, and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government made appropriate arrangements and coordination. However, Messi was sitting on the bench throughout the entire game, showing no interaction with the audience and not personally explaining the reasons to the local fans as requested by the HKSAR government. Considering this significant disparity, the disappointment of the HKSAR government and the fans is entirely understandable. The impact of this incident has far exceeded the realm of sports.

It must be pointed out that the audience at the Hong Kong venue in general demonstrated extremely high civility and restraint, a commendable aspect. However, having a good temper does not mean being easy to bully. After the match, as of the morning of February 7, the Consumer Council in Hong Kong has received a total of 629 complaints, with a large number of spectators requesting ticket refunds or at least compensation from the organizer. Many fans have expressed doubts on social media accounts belonging to Messi and Inter Miami.

Perhaps realizing the seriousness of the issue to a certain extent, the organizer Tatler, Messi himself, and his team initiated a round of "PR crisis management." According to their explanation, the main reason Messi did not play in Hong Kong was that he had an injury.

Of course, the health of the players is the top priority, and everyone can understand this. The problem lies in the fact that the organizer had previously claimed that Messi would play in the match, which made the fans feel deceived. Messi did not take any actions to appease the disappointed fans at the scene, and there was no apology in the subsequent statement. He even stated that he would come back to Hong Kong again if given the chance, which made the fans who felt deceived feel even more disrespected. As for Messi's "vibrant performance" on the Japanese field, it only further strengthens the doubts from the outside world.

It's not the first time Hong Kong has organized a large-scale international football friendly match. However, cases like Messi's can be said to be extremely rare. The explanations from Messi and Inter Miami are not convincing, and there are many speculations about the real reasons behind it. One theory is that their actions have political motives, as Hong Kong intends to boost economy through the event and external forces deliberately wanted to embarrass Hong Kong through this incident. Judging from the development of the situation, the possibility of this speculation cannot be ruled out.

The friendly match schedule of Inter Miami has ended, but Messi and Inter Miami cannot simply leave like that, disregarding the fans and public opinion. Messi is not only a player, but also a public figure. Fans not only appreciate his football skills, but also scrutinize his character. Basic professional and contractual spirit are the bottom line for him, and there are higher requirements such as social responsibility. If there are any flaws or breaches in his basic integrity, the attention surrounding him will result in a huge backlash. The Argentina national football team, where Messi is a player, is scheduled to come to China to participate in a friendly match in March this year. It is hoped that he will give a reasonable explanation before that.

It should also be pointed out that some Western media outlets have taken this opportunity to smear Hong Kong, claiming that it has negatively impacted Hong Kong's international image and reputation. This is nonsense. The HKSAR government and its citizens have handled this incident with great sincerity and restraint, demonstrating a high level of civilization and openness throughout the process. The stage is set, and if the guests do not perform well, it may be a bit disappointing for the host. If anyone should be embarrassed, it would be Messi, Inter Miami and Tatler. Everyone knows what attitude and performance expected in a normal friendly match. There are no eternal superstars, only an eternal love for football. Anyone who deviates from the original intention of this sport, regardless of their motive, will not achieve good results.