Messi’s belated response fails to quell public discontent
Published: Feb 21, 2024 10:56 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

 Argentine soccer maestro Lionel Messi on Monday night released a video statement to address the controversy which has fermented for weeks, however, it hasn't quelled the discontent among Chinese fans. He has been embroiled in the controversy since early February, when he didn't take the field during a friendly match in Hong Kong with his club Inter Miami.

But thanks to Messi's reluctance to communicate with the public - as he used to throughout his stellar career - this created room for the voices of anger to breed fast on social media, leading to a harsh public opinion toward the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner. 

Messi told a press conference in Japan on February 6 that he didn't play in Hong Kong on February 4 because he had an inflamed adductor that had become worse after playing another friendly earlier in Saudi Arabia. 

Messi's subsequent 30-minute appearance in a match in Japan, just three days after the Hong Kong game, only served to exacerbate the controversy. 

In his latest video released on Monday, Messi reiterated that he felt discomfort before the Hong Kong game and there was a risk it would get worse if he played. But his condition had improved, thus making him able to play in the Japan game.

Michel Lamuniere, chairman and chief executive of Tatler Asia, the company that organized the Inter Miami game in Hong Kong, told sports news media The Athletic in a recent interview that they only found out Messi would not play just "15 minutes before the start" of the Hong Kong game.

The explanation contradicted the organizer's initial statement that they were only informed that Messi would not play in the match during halftime, as Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, the Hong Kong Special Administration Region official who oversees culture, sports and tourism, had said Tatler Asia had previously assured them that Messi would be playing in the second half.

While the contractual obligations between his club and the event organizers bore the primary responsibility for his absence, the fans' ire was directed squarely at Messi himself, highlighting the high expectations placed upon him. 

Despite Messi's latest attempt at damage control, his belated responses failed to quell the discontent brewing among fans. In a survey conducted by China News Service, a staggering 70 percent of respondents expressed their dissatisfaction with Messi's explanations, underscoring the erosion of trust in Messi. Many fans are still questioning Messi's lack of sincerity and accuse him of being arrogant toward Chinese fans due to the late response.

The gap between Messi's initial absence and his eventual clarification provided fertile ground for rumors and false narratives to flourish online. 

Another world soccer megastar, Cristiano Ronaldo, once found himself in controversy in January as two friendly games between his club Al Nassr of Saudi Arabia and two Chinese Super League clubs were postponed just a day ahead of the first game due to Ronaldo's "sudden" injury. Fans complained that the club and organizer should have told the public earlier about his injury.

The public's disappointment was eased by Ronaldo's instant apology and the organizers' promises that all tickets sold through official channels would be refunded and the expenses incurred by fans on travel and hotels would also be covered. Tatler Asia, however, waited five days - after the end of Inter Miami's match in Japan - to announce that they would refund 50 percent of ticket prices to ticket holders. 

The repercussions of the debacle faced by Messi have extended beyond mere public sentiment, impacting the scheduled friendly matches of the Argentine national team in China. With fan outrage showing few signs of abating, the matches slated for March in Beijing and Hangzhou were canceled, dealing a blow not just to the current generation of Argentine players but also to their long-standing fan base in China.

There were much better options to avokid such a crisis. If Messi had responded faster instead of posting a video two weeks later, public opinion might not have turned against him as strongly as it has the past few weeks. Now the road to a total redemption may be long and arduous, but with humility, honesty, and a renewed commitment to transparency, Messi can yet emerge stronger from this ordeal.

The case once again underscores the dangers of acting slow and leaving public anger unaddressed. The need for timely responses and clear messaging cannot be overstated. Only by addressing crises promptly and effectively can public figures hope to regain the trust and confidence of their supporters. 

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.