Sporting officials in Hangzhou announced Friday that they would cancel a friendly match between Argentina and Nigeria in the Chinese city next month, days after soccer star Lionel Messi sat out a highly anticipated match in Hong Kong because of injury – only to play in Tokyo days later.
The Inter Miami player has faced intense backlash from Chinese authorities and fans who complained about paying up to $500 (HK$4000) and traveling from as far away as Melbourne to see the Argentine megastar play.
Hangzhou authorities cited “the current well-known reasons” for canceling the Argentina-Nigeria game. It is unclear whether Argentina will still compete against the Ivory Coast in Beijing on the same trip.
Tatler Asia, the organizer of the Hong Kong game that Messi was expected to play in, said Friday it would issue a 50% refund on tickets bought through official channels.
“We will not evade our responsibilities as an organizer,” the media company said, after days of intense pressure from fans and the Hong Kong government.
China alleges ‘political motives’ behind Messi sitting out the game
An editorial in the Chinese state-run tabloid The Global Times suggested that “political motives” were behind Messi sitting out the game, and raised the specter of “external forces deliberately seeking to embarrass Hong Kong.” The Global Times said that the soccer star – who said he was in pain from “a groin injury that had swollen” – needed to come up with a more convincing explanation for sitting out of the Hong Kong match by the time he visits the mainland next month. In a separate English-language editorial, the state media outlet wrote that the incident has now “far exceeded the realm of sports,” criticizing Messi’s reported lack of enthusiasm towards fans even when sat on the sidelines. As a public figure, “there are higher requirements, such as social responsibility,” the tabloid argued.
Reaction shows how celebrities can draw backlash on China’s nationalistic social media
Chinese social media users took Messi’s absence in Hong Kong as a personal slight — with one Weibo user posting, according to CNN: “[He] played in five of the six preseason games and only missed the game in Hong Kong, China! Don’t come to China! China doesn’t welcome you.”
The response exemplifies how a misstep by a Western brand or celebrity can lead to a rapidly escalating backlash in China’s “highly nationalistic social media sphere,” CNN reported. It cited another incident in 2019 when the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team expressed support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong — which led to an outcry from Chinese fans and threatened the U.S. National Basketball Association’s “lucrative footing” in China.