20th February 2024 – (Hong Kong) The recent Lionel Messi debacle in Hong Kong, where he failed to play in a highly publicised friendly match, has escalated into a reputation crisis for the Argentine football star in the Chinese market. Messi’s mishandling of the aftermath spotlights the importance of swift and sincere apologies to mitigate brand damage in this vital region. Compared to Messi’s evasiveness, Cristiano Ronaldo’s cultural deftness in engaging Chinese fans shows that celebrity status alone does not excuse accountability for missteps. Messi must reflect on how to rebuild trust after this incident tarnished his image in the eyes of many Chinese supporters.

Messi’s arrival in Hong Kong as part of an Asian tour with his club Inter Miami sparked enthusiasm, given his towering status in football. Fans expected Messi to showcase his sublime skills during the friendly event. However, he failed to play, citing a minor injury, and further snubbed organisers by refusing to even don his jersey or partake in award ceremonies.

This indignity was compounded when Messi promptly played in a subsequent match in Japan, arousing accusations of deliberately disrespecting Hong Kong. Videos showed a contrast between his cold demeanour in Hong Kong versus enthusiastic engagement with Japanese fans. The impression left was that Messi intentionally belittled event hosts and supporters in Hong Kong.

Beyond simply disappointing fans, Messi’s actions caused wider reputational damage by seemingly slighting Hong Kong and failing basic diplomatic courtesies. He declined handshake opportunities with the city’s Chief Executive and avoided any personal engagement during the event. Combined with his enthusiastic Japan performance, this painted Messi as arrogant and contemptuous of Hong Kong.

The outrage escalated as Chinese state media vilified Messi’s behaviour. The Global Times criticised his lack of remorse and demanded an explanation. As condemnations grew, upcoming matches involving Messi’s Argentine national team set for China were promptly cancelled. Promotional content featuring Messi was removed from Chinese broadcasts. Suddenly, a sporting incident became an international image crisis.

As the backlash intensified, Messi finally issued a statement after the mess he created on 4th February to offer his side of the story. However, the terse apology only mentioned regret for being unable to play, without addressing the deeper offence caused. His passive voice came across as forced by circumstances rather than authentic. In a video statement released on Chinese social media late Monday 19th February 2024, the Inter Miami star said he wanted to set the record straight after hearing he did not play on 4th February 2024 because of politics and “many other reasons.” These are “totally untrue,” he said, reiterating his absence was due to an inflamed adductor. “Since the start of my career, I’ve had a very close and special relationship with China,” said Messi, who faced the camera wearing a grey T shirt in the 140-second video. “I’ve done lots of things in China — interviews, games and events. I’ve also been there and played many times.” He concluded the English and Chinese-subtitled video saying: “As always, I send good wishes to everyone in China, who I’ve always had, and continue to have, special affection for. I hope to see you again soon.” However, this attempt at an apology came too late, 16 days after the incident, and failed to sincerely address the offence caused in Hong Kong. The passive tone and lack of cultural awareness only further damaged Messi’s standing, sealing his PR catastrophe in China.

This contrasted unfavourably with Cristiano Ronaldo’s effusive video greeting for Lunar New Year that resonated widely on Chinese social media. Ronaldo displayed genuine warmth and respect for local culture. His sincerity won effusive praise, highlighting how Messi could have mitigated tensions.

Messi’s reluctance also invoked geopolitical scepticism. Speculation swirled over whether his club’s owners, who support right-wing Argentine President Javier Milei, harboured an anti-China bias that influenced events in Hong Kong. Messi’s continued silence fuelled rather than quelled such conjecture.

In light of the misgivings surrounding Messi, Chinese authorities preemptively imposed an informal “blacklist” against him. This prohibitive action illustrates the damage from perceived arrogance and insensitivity. By evading the truth and failing to sincerely address Chinese fans, Messi amplified the belief that he snubbed them intentionally and with impunity. Now, an indelible taint and distrust surrounds Messi’s image in China. The blacklist signifies he is no longer welcomed or worthy of the Chinese public’s admiration. Repairing the shattered cultural rapport will be an uphill battle, regardless of his superstar pedigree.

Messi has learned the hard way that fame alone does not excuse accountability. His conduct conveyed that he considered himself above expressing basic decency during the Hong Kong incident. This impudence incurred lasting resentment.

Looking ahead, Messi must reflect deeply on how to rebuild goodwill. Though the blacklist remains unofficial, reversing the stigma surrounding him requires tremendous work. First and foremost, he must offer a heartfelt apology that addresses the specific actions that caused offence in Hong Kong. No major brand ambassador can afford to be perceived as dismissive of an entire national fanbase. A sincere show of humility and cultural awareness is essential. Secondly, Messi should demonstrate tangible commitment to Chinese supporters through deeds, not just words. Hosting grassroots football clinics for local youth or donating to meaningful China-related causes would help revive his standing from pariah to partner.

The Messi mess in Hong Kong yielded painful but vital lessons. The era of coddling celebrities as infallible idols is ending.