After missing a match in Hong Kong, Lionel Messi played a friendly in Japan, sparking shock and conspiracy theories among thousands of Chinese fans in Hong Kong.
State media Global Times accused Messi and his club Inter Miami of having “political motives aimed at causing embarrassment to Hong Kong”.
Messi was on the bench for the rest of Sunday's game in Hong Kong – an autonomous Chinese administrative region – due to injury.
Wednesday's match in Tokyo prompted some fans to wonder if he was actually injured.
Some 38,000 fans at the Hong Kong Stadium chanted for their money back when Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham addressed the fans at the end of Sunday's match. A ticket to see the 36-year-old Argentine star costs around 4,880 Hong Kong dollars (equivalent to 624 US dollars).
Messi received a rock star welcome when he played for his country in a friendly against Australia in Beijing last year. About 68,000 fans paid up to $680 per ticket for the chance to see him play. He also represents major Chinese brands such as Huawei, Chery, Tencent, Mengnew, Qishui River Wine and G&T Express.
Hong Kong's Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin Yeung said government officials had been told repeatedly that Messi would play. But in the final 10 minutes of the game, it was reported that a hamstring injury would keep him out.
Young added: “We immediately asked them to think about other options, such as Messi appearing on the pitch to interact with his fans and collect the trophy.”
“Unfortunately, as you can all see, it didn't work.”
The region's chief executive, John Lee, said he was deeply disappointed by Messi's absence and called for an explanation from tournament organizers.
Other officials responded angrily, such as Hong Kong MP Regina Ip, who said, “Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter Miami and the black hands behind them because of willful and calculated indifference.”
He added: “Messi should not be allowed to return to Hong Kong. His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting.”
Tatler Asia, the organization of the tournament, said that Messi has agreed to play if he is not injured. He added that the application for the government grant (16 million Hong Kong dollars) would be withdrawn. The tournament was classified as a major sporting event, which enabled the organizers to access government funding.
On the same day of the Japan friendly, Messi said he was “sorry” to miss the game in Hong Kong due to a “swollen and painful” thigh injury. “I hope that one day we will have the chance to come back and give our fans and friends in Hong Kong our best,” he added in a televised press conference.
His post on Chinese social media network Weibo explaining why he couldn't play in Hong Kong attracted around 142,000 comments.
While some were understanding and supportive, many reacted angrily, including those who described the Argentine as a “fraud and trash”. Others accused Argentina of only wanting to make money from Chinese fans while appeasing the Japanese.
A netizen commented, “No need to apologize, don't come back to China. Just because you play football well doesn't mean you're a good person.”