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‘I’ve had a very close and special relationship with China,’ says Lionel Messi in video on absence from Hong Kong game

By Shawn Deng, Wayne Chang and Ben Morse, CNN

(CNN) — Lionel Messi is still trying to explain his absence from a soccer game in Hong Kong as the Inter Miami star released a video on Monday on Chinese social media platform Weibo following a text statement he made about two weeks ago.

On February 4, Messi’s absence from the match between Inter Miami and the Hong Kong XI team sparked significant backlash. Chinese authorities subsequently cancelled two soccer games involving Argentina’s national team in response to the issue.

The anger ramped up when Messi came on as a 60th-minute substitute a few days later in the team’s game against Vissel Kobe in Tokyo.

Many on Weibo questioned how the star was able to make such a quick recovery three days after the Hong Kong game. The sarcastic hashtag “medical miracle” trended high with more than 1.3 million views.

Others lashed out against what they saw as disrespect for Hong Kong – and China.

Several Chinese state media outlets denounced Messi’s absence and accused the game host of poor organization.

In Monday’s video, Messi denied that his absence was due to political reasons and reiterated that he was unable to make the game because of an inflamed adductor that had worsened the day before the game in Hong Kong.

The video post by Messi was at the top of search rankings on Weibo on Monday evening. It garnered over 20,000 comments and more than 200,000 likes in about an hour.

In the comments section, the majority have shown a strong affection and a positive attitude towards his video response. However, a small fraction of sarcastic comments still question his intention of not losing the Chinese market.

“I’ve had a very close and special relationship with China and I’ve done a lot of things in China,” Messi said in the video. He added that he would like to see China again after sending good wishes to the Chinese people.

Messi’s initial statement on his absence from the Hong Kong match was received with negativity by many on Weibo, with one user calling it “not sincere at all.”

The statement’s IP address showed it was posted in China’s Sichuan province, some 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) from Tokyo, fueling derision online. Major social media platforms in China require users to show their IP address location.

The furor surrounding Messi is the latest example of how backlash against brands or celebrities can quickly snowball in China’s highly nationalistic social media sphere – in some cases with the potential for significant business ramifications in the country’s major consumer market.

China’s so-called “wolf-warrior” diplomats and other government agencies have also made sharp public statements in such instances.

The incident also comes as Hong Kong attempts to burnish its image as an international hub – even as it has come under increasing influence from mainland China, with Beijing tightening its control of the city and its government following mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.

As public – and official – anger mounted over Messi’s no show, Hong Kong match organizer Tatler XFEST announced that it would refund 50% of the ticket price for fans, a move it said would cost the company $7.1 million and leave it facing nearly $5.5 million in losses.

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