12th February 2024 – (Beijing) The recent Asia tour of Lionel Messi, the Argentinian football maestro, has escalated from a mere athletic event into a complex narrative that touches upon the very heart of integrity, diplomacy, and moral conduct. His unexpected absence from a much-anticipated exhibition match in Hong Kong, notwithstanding his active participation in a subsequent game in Japan, has sparked widespread disappointment and fostered an atmosphere of mistrust. The ensuing debate has yielded a stark conclusion: China must decisively blacklist Messi to articulate a stern message against any form of disrespect.

The anticipation for Messi’s appearance in Hong Kong was met with bewilderment as the star vanished from the event, bypassing a customary handshake with the city’s Chief Executive, John Lee. This blatant omission of basic courtesy has cast a shadow over Messi’s reputation, suggesting an air of superiority ill-suited to the warm reception he received.

This narrative gained traction through vehement critiques from various quarters, including the Chinese state-run Global Times, which fueled the call for a tangible response from Messi concerning his conduct in Hong Kong, particularly given the impending engagements of the Argentinian national team in China. The growing indignation has prompted a call for the cancellation of upcoming friendly matches.

Within this charged atmosphere, China’s path is clear-cut: it must impose an absolute blacklist on Messi, prohibiting his involvement in any matches or promotional events within the nation. This stance should serve as a clear indicator that any display of disrespect towards Chinese and Hong Kong dignitaries is unacceptable, regardless of the individual’s global status.

The justification for such a blacklist is rooted in the magnitude of the offence caused and the current absence of a formal apology or suitable explanation. The affront extends beyond the disheartened fans, who invested both emotionally and financially, to the broader humiliation of Hong Kong as a gracious host on the international stage.

Messi’s failure to engage with local officials or to observe diplomatic norms during his visit conveys an arrogance that cannot be left unaddressed. His subsequent silence in Hong Kong, followed by an active participation in Japan, exacerbates the perception of deliberate discourtesy.

A ban would serve as a testament to China’s resolve to protect its honour against the whims of capricious celebrities and organisations that do not hold their host’s dignity in high regard. It is a statement that any interaction with China requires the highest level of sensitivity, conspicuously absent from Messi’s actions. No superficial apology or monetary reimbursement can undo the insult incurred.

The stark contrast between Messi’s alleged incapacity to play in Hong Kong and his lively performance in Japan further incites allegations of misconduct. Chinese media have highlighted this discrepancy, reinforcing the suspicion of prejudicial treatment towards Hong Kong, and bolstering the case for a firm response.

Supporters of Messi might argue that his absence was due to understandable fatigue following a demanding season. However, such a defence does not hold water; professional athletes are expected to endure such pressures, particularly when their prosperity is significantly underpinned by their global fanbase. This sense of entitlement calls for strict consequences.

Furthermore, geopolitical nuances cannot be overlooked. Messi’s presence in Hong Kong was under the banner of Inter Miami, a club with ownership ties to the Mas family, known for their conservative political stance and historical connections to anti-communist sentiments. This raises legitimate questions about whether political undercurrents might have influenced the team’s handling of the situation in Hong Kong.

As we delve deeper into the geopolitical chessboard, the role of Argentina’s leadership under President Javier Milei becomes a focal point of interest. Milei’s ascent to the presidency marked a departure from Argentina’s previously amicable relations with China, as he shifted the country’s foreign policy compass towards a more confrontational stance with Beijing. His refusal to embrace membership in the BRICS bloc, combined with his vocal criticism of China’s ideology, has not gone unnoticed. In a daring economic gambit, Milei even flirted with the idea of replacing the Argentine peso with the U.S. dollar, a clear nod to Western alignment.

Milei’s pivot towards Washington and away from Beijing is a gambit that reverberates through the realms of international relations and global sports diplomacy alike. The decision to cancel the Argentinian national team’s matches in China could be perceived as a response to Milei’s rhetoric, as much as a reaction to Messi’s perceived affront. Through the lens of realpolitik, it underscores Beijing’s readiness to express its disapproval and to signal that alliances and partnerships are not without their conditions. In the grand tapestry of international affairs, the actions taken against Messi and the Argentinian team can be seen as both a rebuke of disrespect and a broader statement on the consequences of geopolitical realignment.

Even if concrete motives remain unsubstantiated, the repercussions of Messi’s actions warrant a strong symbolic reprimand. Anything short of this would be to minimise the gravity of the incident and potentially set a precedent for future indiscretions. A preemptive blacklist serves to prevent further affronts while re-establishing standards for celebrity behaviour.

The imposition of a blacklist also allows for a measure of vindication for Hong Kong, which found itself at the receiving end of what many perceived as mismanagement of the event. Such a move would manifest mainland China’s support and prevent international factions from exploiting the situation to undermine Hong Kong on the world stage, thus reinforcing Chinese sovereignty.

While some may view a blacklist as a disproportionate response given Messi’s popularity, it is essential to recognise that sports figures are often held accountable for their club’s decisions. Messi’s failure to mitigate the situation, despite his influential status, renders him deserving of censure.

The Argentinian national team, too, is not exempt from scrutiny. The team’s coach manifested a dismissive attitude by failing to provide an explanation for the debacle in Hong Kong. Hence, the Chinese Football Association’s decision to cancel Argentina’s matches stands as a justified measure to illustrate that such disdain comes with consequences.

The realm of football should not be isolated from the geopolitical realities that other sectors face. China’s recent sanctions on Taiwanese pineapple imports over political provocations illustrate how commercial activities can be used to send diplomatic messages.