Lionel Messi, known as an Argentine soccer icon, should have had an easy time during a brief period of play. However, his absence from the substitutes’ bench during a routine preseason exhibition match has sparked an unexpected public relations crisis in one of the world’s most lucrative sports markets, where he had previously enjoyed widespread popularity.

The backlash in China began when Messi failed to appear for Major League Soccer club Inter Miami during a match in Hong Kong and intensified when he participated in the team’s game in Japan a few days later. On social media platforms in mainland China, harsh criticism of Messi became a dominant topic. A widely circulated video showed a blogger cutting up his collection of Messi jerseys with scissors.

Many users on the Chinese social media platform Weibo questioned how Messi could recover so quickly three days after the Hong Kong game, with a sarcastic hashtag “medical miracle” gaining traction. Some also criticized what they perceived as disrespect for Hong Kong and China.

The backlash against Messi, who has a significant fanbase in China, adds to a series of incidents where foreign celebrities or brands have offended Chinese sensibilities.

The incident coincides with Hong Kong’s efforts to enhance its international image, despite increased influence from mainland China. After the Hong Kong game, frustration among fans in the city turned into outrage across mainland China, with influential figures condemning Messi and Inter Miami’s behavior.


Lionel Messi being hugged by a young fan

The location of the match exacerbated tensions, given historical animosities and contemporary frictions between China and Japan.

State-affiliated media outlets in China further stoked the backlash by suggesting, without evidence, that Messi and Inter Miami’s actions may have been influenced by “external forces” seeking to embarrass Hong Kong.

In an attempt to quell the backlash, Messi posted a statement on his official Weibo account before the Tokyo match, explaining his absence due to injury and expressing a desire to return to both Hong Kong and mainland China. However, the statement’s IP address indicated it was posted from China’s Sichuan province, fueling skepticism online.

This incident highlights how backlash against celebrities or brands can escalate rapidly in China’s nationalistic social media environment, with potential business implications. The response from Chinese authorities and public figures underscores the sensitivity of geopolitical issues in the context of sports and entertainment.

In the aftermath of the incident, both Messi and Inter Miami faced criticism and calls for boycotts on Chinese social media platforms. The situation also raises questions about the delicate balance Hong Kong faces in its efforts to attract international events while navigating its complex relationship with mainland China.

Despite efforts by Hong Kong officials and pro-Beijing politicians to condemn Messi’s actions, some observers question whether such responses will enhance the city’s appeal or exacerbate tensions in an already volatile environment.