cHina's anger against the Argentine superstar Lionel Messi It intensified further over the weekend. The topic has dominated social networks in the People's Republic for days. Many Chinese accuse the footballer of disrespectful behavior and suspect political reasons why he did not appear during a match of his team, Inter Miami, in Hong Kong; Otherwise, he was visibly apathetic and did not shake hands with the Hong Kong head of government. In response, a tour of the Argentine team to China was canceled over the weekend. They were supposed to play Nigeria and Ivory Coast in Hangzhou and Beijing in March. The Hangzhou sports authority spoke in a statement of “reasons that everyone knows.”

Gustav Theile

Commercial correspondent for China based in Shanghai.

The last straw came when Messi came on as a substitute in a match in Japan on Wednesday, just three days later. His teammate Luis Suárez played from the beginning. The game in Japan was a “slap in the face,” wrote Hong Kong organizer Tatler Asia, owned by Swiss publisher Edipresse. According to official information, Messi and Suárez were absent from the match against a local team in Hong Kong due to injuries, but Messi had participated in training shortly before. InterMiami According to Tatler Asia, star players had been contractually guaranteed to play at least 45 minutes if they were not injured. Local media then contacted the doctors to ask if such a quick cure was really possible.

that the second game in Japan took place, further aggravated sensitivities. The country that invaded the People's Republic in World War II and committed countless war crimes there is still considered an archrival by many Chinese today. The Global Times, the Chinese party's nationalist media firebrand, attacked Messi in a series of articles. “The implications of this incident go far beyond the sporting field,” said an editorial that also questioned the integrity of Messi and Miami. Political motives cannot be ruled out.

“Hong Kong hates Messi”

A columnist for the Hong Kong newspaper “South China Morning Post”, owned by the Chinese group Alibaba, also harshly attacked Messi and Inter Miami. “Hong Kong hates Messi,” he wrote in his column. “He sat on the bench the whole time, all pink stubborn like an unhappy flamingo.” Messi and Inter Miami radiated pride and arrogance. The statements from Messi and Miami so far have not managed to calm the situation.

The fiasco comes at an inopportune time for Hong Kong. The city's reputation has been tarnished following the repression of democracy protests and the financial market is under considerable pressure, also because international investors are withdrawing many funds. Recently, world music stars such as Taylor Swift and Coldplay also preferred other cities in Asia. Hong Kong Prime Minister John Lee criticized Tatler Asia for failing to meet public expectations. that shines Hong Kong Cancel. Organizers said that together with the government, which also contributed financially to the event, they wanted to remind the world how “relevant and exciting Hong Kong is.” “This dream has been shattered.” The Global Times' reaction also showed the importance Beijing takes for the event. Western media, which claimed the city's international reputation was suffering due to the incident, were “slandering Hong Kong,” he wrote in the editorial.

The matter is costing the organizers dearly. Tatler Asia did not take advantage of the city's financial support of approximately €2 million. After much public pressure, the company announced that it would refund half the ticket price to the nearly 40,000 fans. They paid the equivalent of up to 630 euros for the tickets. According to Tatler Asia's own information, the refund cost a good 6.6 million euros and the total losses from the event amount to more than 5 million euros.

But the fiasco could also cost Messi. The superstar has several advertising contracts in the People's Republic. Many users angrily commented on posts from brands cooperating with Messi, calling for a boycott or termination of contracts.

There was real Messi mania in Beijing over the summer. Fans besieged the Argentine team's hotel in Beijing and tickets for the friendly against Australia were sold out in twenty minutes. The match took place on the 70th birthday of China President Xi Jinping, who is a big football fan.

Since then, the relationship between Messi and the People's Republic has not had a good star. In November, a planned Inter Miami trip to China with matches in Qingdao and Chengdu was canceled at short notice. The trips of other football greats have also not been successful lately. Cristiano Ronaldo's Al-Nassr club canceled two friendly matches in Shenzhen at the end of January at short notice due to an injury to the superstar.