Lionel Messi played in a Japan friendly after missing a match in Hong Kong, leaving Chinese fans seething and sparking conspiracy theories.
State media outlet Global Times accused Messi and his club Inter Miami of “political motives” with the aim to “embarrass” Hong Kong.
Messi remained on the bench throughout Sunday’s match in the Chinese Special Administrative Region, citing injury.
He played in Tokyo on Wednesday, leading some fans to question his condition.
Some 38,000 fans at the Hong Kong Stadium booed and demanded refunds when Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham addressed the crowd at the end of Sunday’s match. They had paid up to HK$4,880 (£494; $624) to watch the 36-year-old Argentine superstar.
Just last year, Messi received a rock star welcome in Beijing when he played for his country in a friendly against Australia. Some 68,000 fans paid up to $680 for the chance to see him in action. He is also a spokesperson for big Chinese brands such as Huawei, Chery, Tencent, Mengniu, Chishui River Wine and J&T Express.
Kevin Yeung, Hong Kong’s secretary for culture, sports and tourism, said government officials were repeatedly told that Messi would play. But with 10 minutes left in the match, they were informed that a hamstring adductor injury would prevent him from playing.
“We immediately requested them to explore other remedies, such as Messi appearing on the field to interact with his fans and receiving the trophy,” Yeung said.
“Unfortunately, as you all see, this did not work out.”
The territory’s chief executive John Lee said he was extremely disappointed by Messi’s absence and called for an explanation from match organisers.
Other officials like Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip also reacted with fury, claiming that “Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter-Miami, and the black hand behind them” for the “deliberate and calculated snub”.
“Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong. His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting,” she added.
Match organiser Tatler Asia said in a statement that Messi had been contracted to play, unless injured. It added that it was withdrawing its application for a HK$16m government grant. The match had been designated as a major sporting event, which enabled the organisers to tap government funding.
On the same day as the Japan friendly, Messi said on the Chinese social media network Weibo that he “regretted” being unable to play in Hong Kong due to a “swollen and painful” groin injury. “I hope that one day we will have the opportunity to come back and give our best to our fans and friends in Hong Kong,” he added.
The post has attracted some 142,000 comments. While some were supportive, many reacted angrily, with some calling the Argentine a “conman” and “garbage”. Others accused the Argentine of only wanting to make money off Chinese fans while pandering to the Japanese.
“No need to apologise, just don’t come to China again. Just because you play football well does not mean you are a good person,” one netizen said.