9th February 2024 – (Hangzhou) The much-anticipated exhibition match featuring the Argentine football icon Lionel Messi sitting out the entire game has sparked outrage amongst Hong Kong fans and netizens from Mainland China, leading to calls for a boycott. The incident occurred during a friendly match on Sunday, where Messi, despite being present, did not play, resulting in a chorus of boos from the spectators.
The controversy has grown in the wake of a sudden announcement from the Hangzhou Bureau of Sports today, which stated that, due to widely known reasons, a previously arranged friendly match involving the Argentine national team set for March in Hangzhou would be cancelled.
On the 4th of February, in a match against the Inter Miami CF team, Messi remained on the bench in his tracksuit, never donning his football kit. This decision not to play was unique to the exhibition game in Hong Kong, as Messi took to the field in a subsequent match against Vissel Kobe in Tokyo on the 7th of February, where he played for 30 minutes after coming on as a substitute in the 60th minute.
Messi himself addressed the furore over the Hong Kong match via his Weibo account on Thursday evening, citing a groin injury that caused swelling and pain, regretfully preventing him from participating. However, his appearance in the game against Vissel Kobe later that same day has raised questions.
The state-run Health Times, under the People’s Daily, commented on the issue via several Weibo posts, asserting that “groin injuries are difficult to heal in a short period” and recovery could range from two weeks to four months or more.
Furthermore, the Global Times published an editorial on the evening of the 7th, highlighting that while Hong Kong is no stranger to organizing large international football friendlies, the situation with Messi and Inter Miami CF is exceedingly rare. The publication pointed to speculation that the incident might have political motivations, as part of external efforts to embarrass Hong Kong, which seeks to build a ‘celebration economy.’
The editorial also noted that the Argentine national team is scheduled to play a friendly match in China in March and that it is hoped Messi will provide a satisfactory explanation before then.