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Hong Kong’s Messi backlash says more about digital fandom than football

Of the many short videos that have spooled across social media since Sunday’s debacle in Hong Kong, the finest captures an enraged spectator kicking Lionel Messi’s head clean off his neck.

The savagery — unleashed after an injured Messi failed to play in a showcase match on the island — was inflicted on a life-sized cut-out of the eight-time Ballon d’Or-winning superstar, which stood outside the Hong Kong Stadium. The Argentine striker’s four cardboard compadres, teammates from the Inter Miami pantheon, remained unharmed.

The fact that this moment was filmed, posted and has since gone viral is not incidental to the mass disappointment and madness that has ballooned from Messi’s no-show, but germane. 

Hong Kong, already smarting at the idea that its venues are being left out by entertainment megastars, felt slighted and swindled: Messi did not even give them a speech to record on their phones and offset the disappointment. Inevitably, perhaps, the accusatory, conspiracy-seeking rage has turned political. It is sure to spiral further after Messi played in Tokyo on Wednesday night on Inter Miami’s continuing pre-season tour. To make matters more painful still, just as Messi was gracing the turf of Tokyo’s National Stadium, Taylor Swift, whose tour has pointedly not included Hong Kong, was starting a four-concert run at the Tokyo Dome.

The problem is of its time. Hongkongers had paid to watch a footballer, but unfortunately only got a football match. The discrepancy hinges on how audiences define beauty, as the beautiful game jostles for position against other entertainment. The definition is particularly important as football seeks new fans among generations used to consuming entertainment in formats for which the game was not fundamentally built. Behind all the fury that has put Hong Kong — and now mainland China — at the centre of an unwinnable PR meltdown, this was a revealing moment for football as a globalised entertainment industry, and of its vulnerability to the disruptive powers of social media.

Key to this is where end-of-career Messi has wound up. Inter Miami football club, which is co-owned by David Beckham, was founded in 2018 and began playing in America’s Major League Soccer two years later as a flamingo pink baby of the TikTok/Instagram Reels/YouTube Shorts epoch. It gets that live audiences will pay to watch Messi not just for his football, but for his Instagrammable presence. It also gets that his astonishing goalscoring prowess in a weaker league will create the sort of “Messi scores three times in five minutes” incidents which social media hungrily regurgitates.

Football, as a sport, has been adapting with varying degrees of success and urgency to the pressures and incentives created by these new delivery channels: Inter Miami is a pure confection of them and Messi, in theory, the ultimate sweetener.

The issue that football (along with other sports) confronts is one of ever more aggressive fragmentation of diversion. The short video form, and the algorithms that push them with such addictive force, is arguably evolving faster than any other form of entertainment in history. It is a turbocharged thief of time. Its power to distract and absorb is infinite: not only is the format a perfect medium for delivering the new content that thousands of people delight in producing; it is also able to repackage existing content (snippets from films, TV, games, sport) in a way that can make something you’ve seen several times seem new.

Football has not lost any of its natural magnetism, but it is increasingly forced to compete, on a second-by-second basis, with smarter, slicker, ever more eye-catching (and perhaps less demanding) attention seekers. One effect of this competition has been to amplify the power of individuals, whose heroics work supremely well as the sort of short visual bursts through which many now prefer to consume. The sport has always been a factory of superstars, but the globalisation created by social media, and by the peculiar capacity of short videos to intensify the focus on single players, has made fandom a more portable thing. Clubs create bases, tribes and ecosystems, but individual stars create followers.

This appears to have been the calculation of Inter Miami both as it acquired Messi for tens of millions of dollars, and then embarked upon the pre-season tour that has misfired so badly. It wanted to build a brand by attracting the portable fans that social media seems to foster. The problem, as Hong Kong’s rage attests, is that it got them.

leo.lewis@ft.com

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