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The Backlash to ‘Messi’s Mess’ in Hong Kong—and How It Could Backfire on the City

It was meant to be a “friendly.” But Hong Kong hasn’t been shy about expressing its anger over Lionel Messi sitting on the bench for the entirety of his soccer team’s much-hyped exhibition match in the city on Sunday, especially as the government worries about how such a high-profile disappointment for so many attendees could hamper the success of future attractions meant to revitalize Hong Kong as one of Asia’s premier hosts of top talent and attractions.

Now, however, the meltdown is threatening to overtake the letdown in harming Hong Kong’s appeal to international stars.

Hong Kong has made no secret of its determination to woo top acts to perform in the city, with leader John Lee likening the government’s efforts last month to “asking someone on a date.” But some observers point to the potential cost the furor over one event gone wrong could inflict on Hong Kong’s reputation, which has already taken a blow due to China’s increasing grip over the city.

“Whereas that kind of knee-jerk reaction may be somewhat satisfying in the short term,” Donald Low, a senior lecturer of public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, tells TIME, “it is very myopic” and “is likely to do more long-term harm to Hong Kong’s attractiveness.”

Some of the most extreme Messi reactions so far:

The disappointment over Messi not playing at all on Sunday due to injury prompted multiple heated responses from Hong Kong Chief Executive Lee, who earlier this week expressed dissatisfaction based on the city’s sponsorship of the event. “In promoting this event, the government did a lot of work to coordinate and provide assistance to the organizer to strive for the best possible outcome,” said Lee. “The performance of the organizer has an impact on Hong Kong’s image and reputation.”

Organizer Tatler Asia said it would withdraw its requests for government grants, but that wasn’t enough to appease everyone. Hong Kong lawmaker Tang Ka-piu threatened legal action against the company on Thursday, demanding that fans be refunded their tickets within a week. In a statement on Friday, Tatler Asia apologized for how the match turned out and said that some spectators would get a 50% refund on their tickets.

Spectators react to Messi’s no-show at the Hong Kong Stadium on Feb. 4.<span class="copyright">Justin Chin—Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Spectators react to Messi’s no-show at the Hong Kong Stadium on Feb. 4.Justin Chin—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Hong Kong legislative councilor Kenneth Fok extended his blame beyond Tatler to Messi and Inter Miami as well, writing in a Weibo post that has since garnered more than 1.4 million likes that he thought Messi should have at least spoken to the crowd or engaged with fans by shaking hands or signing autographs: “It’s unclear whether this approach is too difficult for the ‘King of Football,’ or is it because he is too popular and sought after and has become numb to cheers? Messi's past achievements in the football world are beyond doubt and deserve our respect, but with the way this game was handled, I believe Hong Kong fans did not feel respected.” He added: “International Miami still owes Hong Kong fans an explanation and apology.”

Inter Miami, for its part, said in a statement to Reuters on Thursday that they were “sorry” Messi and his star teammate Luis Suárez were unable to play in Hong Kong. “We do feel it necessary to express that injuries are unfortunately a part of the beautiful game, and our player's health must always come first,” the statement said.

But it wasn’t long before outrage morphed into theorizing ulterior motives for Messi’s non-performance.

As controversy extended beyond Hong Kong to mainland China too, the player who was TIME’s 2023 Athlete of the Year has drawn ire from social media users claiming Messi’s behavior was a snub at Chinese fans. “He’s looking down on you,” a Weibo user wrote. “Look at him crossing his arms beside the field, wandering like a puppet. You can tell that he doesn't even bother to channel feelings of annoyance at you.”

Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of Chinese state media Global Times expressed skepticism at Messi’s injury by posting a video of Messi playing in Japan on Wednesday, adding that Messi’s unapologetic explanation for his absence on Hong Kong’s pitch struck Chinese fans as “insincere.”

Messi had posted a note on Weibo in both Chinese and Spanish on Wednesday: “Anyone who knows me knows that I always want to play, that’s what I always want to do in any game,” he said. “Hopefully we can come back and we can play a game in Hong Kong. And I also hope to be able to return to China as soon as possible and greet you all.”

But he may not be invited back. The fiasco has taken a wild, nationalistic turn, with pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip writing in a post on X that “Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter-Miami, and the black hand behind them.” The term “black hands” has been commonly used by Chinese authorities to refer to perceived foreign interference in Hong Kong, particularly during the surge of protests in the city in 2019.

Such conspiracies have also run rampant on Chinese social media and in state media outlets. A Global Times editorial published Wednesday said: “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 … 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.”

Another conspiracy theory shared on Weibo singled out Inter Miami’s Cuban-American co-owner Jorge Mas, who is also the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, which was linked to hawkish former President Ronald Reagan. “Judging by this relationship,” one user wrote, “Messi’s behavior in Hong Kong is really not an individual act. We really can’t eliminate the possibility of U.S.-related involvement.”

Some pro-Beijing media outlets in Hong Kong have echoed such suspicions. Ta Kung Pao, a state-owned Chinese newspaper, published an article on Thursday implying a connection between the Messi incident and the U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency via Mas’ late father, Jorge Mas Canosa, who in the 1960s was among those trained by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Another op-ed published in its sister outlet Wen Wei Po on Thursday, titled “Messi’s absence is a premeditated maneuver,” claimed that the change in Messi’s condition between his games in Hong Kong and Japan was “so abnormal that it’s a blatant attempt at humiliating Hong Kong.” It added that there could be no other explanation than “a mysterious and huge behind-the-scenes mastermind carefully planning it” to “make Hong Kong look like an international fool and allow external forces with ulterior motives to take the opportunity to badmouth Hong Kong’s ‘events economy.’”

As Hong Kong was already concerned about losing out more and more to other locales like Tokyo and Singapore as the preferred destinations of the world’s biggest acts like Messi and Taylor Swift, in the wake of this week, as Inter Miami’s perceived slight has snowballed into a full-fledged PR disaster for everyone involved, the gap may only continue to widen.

Contact us at letters@time.com.