How Did Messi Offend the Hong Kong Government and ‘Insult’ China?

World Cup winner Lionel Messi’s visit to Hong Kong with Inter Miami on 4 February stirred major controversy after he sat out a one-off exhibition game against the Hong Kong League Selection Team. Despite a major promotion campaign promising fans a once-in-a-lifetime chance of seeing their idol in action, the soccer star remained on the bench throughout the match on the grounds of a strained hamstring and the opinion of the team. His fans from Hong Kong and those from the mainland who travelled to Hong Kong specifically for the event, spending around HK$1,000 to 5,000 (AU$200 to 1,000) for the tickets, were left feeling disappointed and even ripped off.[1] Many people, including Kenneth Fok 霍啟剛, the vice chairman of Elite Sports Committee, expressed unhappiness with Messi’s perceived lack of sportsmanship and professionalism.[2]

The incident gained global attention after Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee 李家超 and Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin Yeung 楊潤雄reacted furiously to the international soccer icon’s failure to play, blaming the organisers.[3] Certain pro-Beijing Hong Kong politicians, including Regina Ip 葉劉淑儀 and Junius Ho 何君堯, sought to escalate the incident by accusing Messi of disrespecting not just soccer fans but also ‘making the chief executive “lose face” and insulting the SAR government ’. [4] Nationalistic sentiments ran even hotter after Messi took to the field in a game against Japan just two days later. This led Junius Ho to accuse him of ‘insulting China’ by playing in a country that had carried out atrocities in China, such as the Nanjing Massacre in 1937.[5] Regina Ip even demanded that ‘Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong’.[6]

Advancing from stability to prosperity

In 2019, millions of Hongkongers took to the streets to protest against an extradition bill that would allow the possibility of a mainland trial for people in Hong Kong. One year later, the PRC imposed a National Security Law on the territory that put many protesters and journalists in prison, shut down free media and broke up a number of unions and other associations. Two years after that, Xi Jinping announced during the Twentieth National Congress in September 2022 that Hong Kong had entered a ‘new stage in which it has restored order and is set to thrive’ 進入由亂到治走向由治及興的新階段.[7] Since then, the Hong Kong government has been actively promoting the narrative of ‘advancing from stability to prosperity’ 由治及興. The central idea is that despite ‘the impact of the epidemic and the social unrest previously’, the city has now ‘transited from chaos to order’ and is now enjoying prosperity with ‘better constitutional order and improved governance systems’, under the leadership of the Hong Kong government and the support received from the motherland.[8] The government has continually reiterated this rhetoric, particularly after the legislation of the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance (commonly known as Basic Law Article 23).[9]

To substantiate this narrative, the Hong Kong government has launched various new campaigns aimed at enhancing the city’s international profile, showcasing its reputation as a top international destination. For example, the Hong Kong International Airport World of Winners campaign distributes free tickets across a range of airlines for lucky winners to visit Hong Kong.[10] With sponsorship from Hong Kong companies, the government organised Night Vibes Hong Kong during the Mid-Autumn Festival and Christmas celebrations to showcase the city’s vibrant nightlife after COVID-19.[11] In 2024, apart from sponsoring the Inter Miami exhibition game in February, the government has announced plans for monthly fireworks displays and drone shows above Victoria Harbour to boost tourism.[12]

Despite the government’s efforts and massive advertising campaigns, not all the mega events went smoothly as planned. Night Vibes suffered from power outages in the first few days.[13] One day before Hong Kong was set to host the FIA (Fédération International de l’Automobile) World Rallycross Championship Season Finale for the first time in November 2023, the organiser announced a shortened schedule and racing track on the first day owing to construction delays.[14] Poor transport arrangements for the 2024 New Year’s Eve fireworks left 1,500 mainland tourists waiting long hours – in some cases all night – for coaches home.[15]

When Messi’s visit proved a public relations disaster instead of a triumph, the Hong Kong government was eager to point the finger at the winner of the multiple Ballon d’Or himself. However, local press in Hong Kong have since questioned the credibility of the event’s host, Tatler Asia, and why the government sponsored the event for HK$16 million, exceeding the HK$15 million limit for one major sports event stipulated in the 2023 Budget. Tatler Asia is a luxury fashion and lifestyle publisher that has favourably covered the career of Victoria Beckham, wife of the owner of Inter Miami, David Beckham, but the company had never before organised a major sports event.[16]

Just one week later, the Lunar New Year Cup 賀歲盃, a soccer tradition in Hong Kong since 1908, proceeded smoothly, with Rivaldo, Alessandro Del Piero, David Villa and Francesco Totti in attendance. There were few complaints.

Soccer fans in Hong Kong were certainly disappointed by Messi’s absence from the match. Ignoring the fact that Messi had an injury and that injuries happen in soccer, some demanded a refund for their tickets. This happened even during the game itself.[17] But many perceived the Hong Kong government’s response to be an overreaction. Local netizens shared the humorous meme: ‘It’s all because you’re pessimistic, unlike me who can see the benefits of “advancing from stability to prosperity”’ 咁係因為你悲觀, 我見到由治及興嘅好處.[18] The meme, which originated from LIHKG, a popular Hong Kong online forum, has been circulating since April 2023 to make fun of the government’s new political slogan ‘advancing from stability to prosperity’. It is often invoked in response to unfortunate events in Hong Kong, such as the perceivable economic decline, ironically urging Hongkongers to have faith in their local government and the motherland.

The meme ‘It’s all because you’re pessimistic, unlike me who can see the benefits of “advancing from stability to prosperity”.’ (Source: @lauyanhin, Instagram)

Nationalistic overdrive

Local disappointment turned into nationalistic fury in mainland China, especially after Messi’s subsequent appearance on the pitch in Japan. ‘Patriotic’ Chinese netizens shared comments from people like Kenneth Fok, Junius Ho and Regina Ip, demanding that Messi ‘give Chinese people an explanation’ 给中国人民一个交代 and calling for a nationwide boycott of Messi’s games, teams and related products.[19] Angry fans flooded Messi’s and Inter Miami’s social media accounts demanding refunds and an apology;[20] some burnt Messi’s jerseys; some even targeted the website of the Argentine Embassy in China and declared the Falkland Islands to be ‘a sacred and indivisible territory of the United Kingdom’.[21] On 9 February, five days after the Hong Kong exhibition game, the Hangzhou Sports Office issued a statement citing ‘obvious reasons’ for cancelling a friendly match with the Argentinian national team in March 2024.[22] Such reactions highlight the increasing integration of Hong Kong’s affairs with those of China and show that a local incident in the territory can influence international relations.

On 19 February, the anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Argentina, Messi’s social media account on Weibo posted a video in which he denied having any political reasons for not playing in Hong Kong while playing two days later in Japan, stressing ‘his close and special relationship’ with China.[23] Netizens’ reactions were mixed: some people had enough of the drama, some said he should have released the video sooner, others complained that he did not really ‘apologise’. Some quoted a Weibo post from 8 February by Hu Xijin’s 胡錫進, the former editor of the Global Times and an early ‘wolf warrior’–style commentator, stating that the matter ‘should not be politicised’ and denigrating Messi as ‘not that influential’.[24] By contrast, Kenneth Fok’s furious response has received blowback on the Mainland, with some labelling him a ‘political opportunist’ 政治投机.[25]

The Hong Kong government’s fury at an injured Messi’s failure to play at a friendly exhibition game must be understood in the context of the government’s fervent desire to restore Hong Kong’s image as an international city, under the narrative of ‘advancing from stability to prosperity’. Since the 2019 protests, crackdown and imposition of the National Security Law, some Western commentators have argued that Hong Kong ‘is struggling to restore its image as a global city’.[26] Even mainland netizens joke that Hong Kong has become the ruins of an international financial centre 國際金融中心遺址.[27] Yet, for all the controversy and ensuing reactions, the fact that such a high-profile figure as Messi visited Hong Kong in the first place – and the widespread international attention paid to the incident – affirms the city’s global significance. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong government’s overreaction and hyperbolic rhetoric from certain Hong Kong politicians that ‘Messi is not just hurting the feeling of Hong Kong people but also insulting China’ illustrate the city’s growing integration with mainland China in its own perception as well as that of the world.


[1] Peggy Ye and Pak Yiu, ‘Lionel Messi no-show angers Hong Kong authorities and fans’, Nikkei, 5 February 2024,

[2] Kenneth Fok, ‘On “Inter Miami” and “King of Soccer” Messi’, Facebook, 7 February 2024,

[3] ‘Govt sought remedies over sit-out’,, 5 February 2024,; ‘Organiser should explain sit-out: CE’,, 6 February 2024,

[4] Junius Ho Kwan Yiu, ‘Contradiction between ourselves and the enemy’ 敵我矛盾, Facebook, 8 February 2024,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Regina Ip Lau Suk Yee (@ReginaIplau), ‘Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong’, X, 8 February 2024,

[7] Xi Jinping, ‘Hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics and strive in unity to build a modern socialist country in all respects’ 高举中国特色社会主义伟大旗帜 为全面建设社会主义现代化国家而团结奋斗,, 25 October 2024,

[8] Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, ‘Build a solid foundation for security while upholding the principle and leveraging the advantages of “one country, two systems”‘, The Chief Executive’s 2022 Policy Address, 2022,

[9] John Lee, ‘Safeguarding National Security Ordinance has become effective, fulfilling the historical mission’  維護國安條例生效 完成歷史使命,, 3 March 2024,

[10] ‘Hong Kong International Airport World of Winners’, Hong Kong International Airport, 2023,

[11] ‘About “Night Vibes Hong Kong”‘, September 2023,

[12] Hong Kong Special Administration Region, ‘Building the Hong Kong brand on all fronts’, The 2024–25 Budget, 2024,

[13] Wynna Wong, ‘“Night vibes Hong Kong”: Hundreds flock to Wan Chai bazaar but power supply glitches zap event energy’, South China Morning Post, 27 September 2023,

[14] ‘Fans express disappointment at FIA race arrangements’,, 11 November 2023,

[15] ‘Govt criticized for inadequate traffic arrangements after New Year’s Eve’s fireworks display’, Standard, 1 January 2024,

[16] ‘Controversy over Messi’s trip to Hong Kong is difficult to resolve’ 美斯香港行爭議難平, HK01, 9 February 2024,

[17] ‘The Consumer Council received 245 complaints involving $1.6 million, and some passengers sought compensation for air tickets and hotel expenses’ 消委會接245宗投訴涉款160萬 有旅客追討機票酒店費用, HKTKWW, 6 February 2024,

[18] ‘Messi’s performance in Hong Kong was “unfortunate”‘ 美斯: 香港情況「不幸」, LIHKG, 6 February 2024,

[19] For example: Junius Ho Kwan Yiu, ‘Contradiction between us and the enemy’ 敌我矛盾, Weibo, 8 February 2024,; Chongfeng haojiao, ‘Messi should never be allowed to come to Hong Kong again”‘绝不应该允许梅西再来香港, Weibo, 8 February 2024,

[20] ‘From pitch to politics: About the messy Messi affair in Hong Kong’, What’s on Weibo, 17 February 2024,

[21] ‘Dissatisfied with Messi’s insult to China, Chinese netizens flooded to the Argentinian embassy’s Weibo and left messages: Falkland Islands belong to British’ 不滿梅西辱華 陸網民湧阿國使館微博留言: 福克蘭群島英國的, Economic Daily, 11 February 2024,

[22] Da He Bao, ‘Argentinian soccer trip to Hangzhou is cancelled’ 阿根廷杭州行取消, Weibo, 10 February 2024,

[23] Lionel Messi, ‘Good luck in the Year of Dragon’ 龙年大吉, Weibo, 20 February 2024,

[24] Hu Xijin, ‘Old Hu supports criticism of Messi’s performance in Hong Kong’ 老胡支持批梅西的香港表现, Weibo, 8 February 2024,

[25] ‘The Messi incident may be reversed’ 梅西事件或将反转, Sohu, 23 February 2024,

[26] ‘Hong Kong is struggling to restore its image as a global city’, Economist, 15 February 2024,

[27] ‘Where did the narrative of “the ruins of an international financial centre” come from?’「國際金融中心遺址」說法從何而來?, Headline Daily, 2 December 2023,

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