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Lionel Messi case: How a preparatory game became a PR disaster

Lionel Messi toured the world with Inter Miami in preparation for the new season in the USA. Only in Hong Kong is the global star not on the pitch – triggering a diplomatic crisis including conspiracy theories.

The stage was set for the man everyone wanted to see. In the Bay of Hong Kong, junks with Lionel Messi’s face on the sail sailed, the stadium sold out with 40,000 seats despite ticket prices of up to 115 euros. Tens of thousands watched the public training session, and the Inter Miami team hotel was also literally besieged. They all came to see perhaps the best footballer of his generation live in the late autumn of his career.

Only: Lionel Messi was not on the field in the friendly against a local team, but sat on the bench for the entire 90 minutes; an injury put the superstar out of action. That former Barca stars Sergio Busquets, Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba were in the US team’s squad and at least played in the second half? The fans didn’t care at all, the personality cult surrounding the Argentine international was more important than the game itself. Messi’s absence led to the superstar and his team being mercilessly booed by visitors at Inter Miami’s stop on the international tour in Hong Kong at the beginning of February . There was even a diplomatic crisis.

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“We confirmed during the game that Messi should play,” said Hong Kong’s Sports Minister Kevin Yeung. Miami was contractually obliged to let Messi play 45 minutes. “We asked them to look for other solutions, such as having Messi appear on the field and receive a trophy.” But that didn’t work either. Immediately after the game, the government considered cutting 16 million Hong Kong dollars (around 1.9 million euros) in funding for the event. The organizer later announced that part of the entry fee would be refunded. The “South China Morning Post” described the loss of the world footballer as the “biggest disappointment of all time.”

The trip to Hong Kong turned out to be a PR disaster for the US team. There was no statement from the club about the events; instead, Messi and coach Gerardo Martino had to explain the situation. While the organizer expressed his “extreme disappointment over the non-participation of Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez” and emphasized that he had no information about the failed appearance, Argentine coach Gerardo Martino explained that he had wanted to rest Messi and Suárez. He asked the disappointed fans for forgiveness. To date, only a summary of the historic preliminary round trip around the world can be found on the Inter Miami website. The fact that Messi became a part-time worker remains completely unmentioned.

Whether the Argentinian was even interested in the spotlight is another question. Sports sociologist Tobias Zuser, who researches in Hong Kong, told Deutschlandfunk that Messi was generally very reserved. “They also wanted to invite Messi to visit the construction site of the new stadium. So, he was seen as an almost official representative. And maybe that’s a role that he didn’t really want,” said Zuser.

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Even days after the game at the beginning of February, the anger did not go away. The influential Chinese tabloid Global Times speculated that foreign powers were conspiring to damage Hong Kong’s reputation. There is a theory that Messi’s absence from the pitch had political motives, as Hong Kong was trying to use the event to stimulate the economy, the paper reported. The fact that Argentina’s new President Javier Milei announced in January that he would not join the Brics alliance of states, in which China plays the leading role, as planned by his predecessors, and also emphasized during his election campaign that he would cut close ties to the Middle Kingdom, is probably not insignificant contributed to this theory.

Messi and Inter Miami themselves added fuel to the fire when Messi was on the field for 30 minutes in the friendly against Vissel Kobe in Japan just a few days later. Chinese fans then called on social media to boycott Messi’s sponsors. The Chinese Football Association also reacted to the developments and terminated its cooperation with the Argentine association and quickly canceled two friendly matches planned by Argentina in China in March.

Lionel Messi is trying to smooth things over

More than two weeks after the incident, the 36-year-old felt compelled to clarify on Tuesday night: “I wanted to record this video to give you the true version of the story so that no one continues to read false stories must,” Messi said in a video posted on the Chinese platform Weibo. The fact that he didn’t play for political or other reasons was “totally wrong,” otherwise he wouldn’t have traveled to Japan or China. Messi explained his absence, as he did at a press conference in Japan, with adductor problems. “I did everything I could. But I couldn’t play. I felt unwell and there was a risk that it would get worse,” explained Messi. He only played in Japan because he felt better a few days later. In China, however, little people wanted to hear about this clarification. The “South China Morning Post” reports that the reactions to the video were rather negative, with many Chinese wishing that Messi would either apologize properly or simply not come to China anymore.

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The incident in Asia shows something else: Messi has become the figurehead of a club and a league that are living beyond their means. Inter Miami, a club that was founded in 2018 and has only been playing in Major League Soccer since 2020, has been on a world tour since January. Apart from a title in the Leagues Cup, a cup competition between the US and Mexican leagues, there is very little in the club’s CV to date. But Miami won the cup last August. The goalscorer in the final: Lionel Messi.

A world tour without the world star would probably have made no sense, apart from the other three former Barca grandees Alba, Busquets and Suarez, Miami has a squad that is probably only known to insiders. And so the series of preparatory games across Central America, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and Japan also went to Argentina to Messi’s youth club Newell’s Old Boys. Around the world with seven test matches in 27 days, Jules Verne would be proud of this achievement. People in Miami might have been less proud of the team’s performance. Miami lost 6-0 against Al-Nasr, the club of Messi’s eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo, and there was also a defeat against Al-Hilal, in Japan and in the game in Dallas. The club from Florida only celebrated one win in preparation. Miami won 4-1 in, of all places, Hong Kong. It was the only game in which Messi didn’t play at least a few minutes. And probably the only thing that will be remembered for a long time.

Sources: Sky, dpa, afp, reuters, zdf, Spiegel, Deutschlandfunk, South China Morning Post

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