Messi says Hong Kong no-show wasn't political, has affection for China

Messi says Hong Kong no-show wasn't political, has affection for China

Hong Kong match organiser would issue 50% refund to ticket holders worth $7.2m after Messi no-show

Inter Miami's Lionel Messi looks on during training at Hong Kong Stadium, Hong Kong, China on Feb 3, 2024. (Photo: Reuters)
Inter Miami's Lionel Messi looks on during training at Hong Kong Stadium, Hong Kong, China on Feb 3, 2024. (Photo: Reuters)

HONG KONG - Lionel Messi sought to draw a line under controversy about his failure to play in a football match in Hong Kong earlier this month, saying his absence was not due to political reasons and he has great affection for China.

In a video statement released on Chinese social media late Monday, the Inter Miami star said he wanted to set the record straight after hearing he did not play 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 gray 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."

This is at least the third time Messi, 36, has explained why he did not play in the Feb 4 exhibition match, after a press conference in Tokyo and a written statement published on China’s Weibo social media platform. Both Messi and Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham were booed by the crowd in Hong Kong.

Messi's absence in the game, and his participation in a match in Japan just days later, fuelled speculation he was deliberately snubbing fans in Hong Kong and mainland China. The Global Times, a Chinese nationalist tabloid, said in an editorial that Messi failed to apologise and the impact of the incident “far exceeded the realm of sports."

Chinese sporting authorities cancelled planned friendly games between Argentina and Nigeria as well as Ivory Coast in the wake of the saga.

Hong Kong politicians also weighed in, with Regina Ip saying the Argentine World Cup winner should be banned from the city because of his “lies and hypocrisy”. The organiser of the Hong Kong match meanwhile said it would issue a 50% refund to ticket holders worth US$7.2 million because of Messi's no-show.

There are signs that Messi's latest statement may calm the waters. Hu Xijin, the former editor in chief of Global Times who earlier led criticism of the footballing legend, said in a post on X that Messi’s “attitude seemed sincere” in the video and he personally accepts the explanation. 

Yet, he said, Messi will pay a price in terms of a damaged image in China.

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