Lionel Messi’s no-show at an exhibition match in Hong Kong this weekend has led to an explosion of anger on China’s Twitter-like platform, Weibo, as disappointed football fans debate the reason for his absence on the pitch. An estimated 200 million people in China are football enthusiasts (according to 2022 data), 7% of whom pay to attend live matches.
The 36-year-old Inter Miami player was due to play at Hong Kong Stadium on Sunday, February 4 in a pre-season friendly against the local team. However, fans’ expectations were thwarted when Messi stayed on the substitute bench for 90 minutes, reportedly due to a hamstring injury. The player was booed amid chants of “refund”, drowning out Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham as he attempted to placate fans.
The reaction online was equally vehement. Many interpreted Messi’s time on the bench as a reflection of his disdain for Chinese fans – a view further fuelled by him skipping end-of-match formalities, like shaking the Hong Kong chief executive’s hand. “He is just looking down on you, he doesn’t care about this city, he doesn’t care about you,” one Weibo user wrote.
The traffic figures reveal an astonishing level of engagement in the debate. The discussion topic “Messi broke the commercial bottom line” (#梅西爽约突破商业底线#) amassed over 300 million views in under 24 hours and occupied the no.1 spot on the platform’s Hot Search list for 8 hours. Another topic “Kenneth Fok demands Messi and Miami apologise” (#霍启刚要求梅西与迈阿密道歉#) gained a further 600 million views and sat in the top position for 15 hours (Fok is a representative for sports, performing arts, and culture in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council).
“The marketing hype in promoting the event to global fans creates high expectations, coupled with government subsidy of the event,” John Grady, a sports law professor at the University of South Carolina, told the Associated Press. “This also raises the expectations that marquee players will appear as advertised.”
The fifth and final round of Inter Miami’s global tour, which was intended as a brand-building campaign for the squad, is Tokyo’s National Stadium. If Messi appears in the starting line-up for Japanese fans just 2 days after disappointing in Hong Kong, the Weibo storm will likely take this as sticking the knife in. The topic “Messi arrives in Japan” (#梅西抵达日本#) has already gained 80 million views in just a few hours – Chinese football fans are waiting with bated breath.