Washington — Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s most popular soccer player, is the object of uncharacteristic hostility in Hong Kong, where he was roundly booed by frustrated fans after sitting out an exhibition match this week. China’s state-controlled media was quick to suggest a CIA hand in the debacle. Messi later explained he had a hamstring strain that made him stay on the bench throughout the game on Sunday, but many fans don’t buy his excuse because Messi played about 30 minutes in Japan three days after his Hong Kong absence. The near-capacity crowd of 38,323 in Hong Kong had paid upwards of 1,000 Hong Kong dollars ($125) to see their hero, and in many cases five times that amount. Some of them also caught sight of Messi walking away with his hands in his pockets when John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, greeted Messi’s fellow Inter Miami players one by one and shook hands with them. Regina Ip Lau Suk Yee, convenor of the Hong Kong Executive Council and a Legislative Council member, lashed out at the soccer hero: "Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong. His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting." She further declared that "Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter-Miami, and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong." Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, a Hong Kong businessman and politician and brother of the Hong Kong Football Association chairman, published two long articles on Weibo, China’s most widely used but heavily censored social media platform. Fok described how disappointed he was when he saw that Messi had played in Japan. "This is very upsetting, thinking how disappointed 40,000 Hong Kong soccer fans were, and how Messi had no facial expression and avoided a group photo-op." Fok said Messi’s performance in Japan was like “pouring salt to Hong Kong fans’ wounds." Not everyone is hurt Global People, a magazine controlled by the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece People’s Daily, jumped into the fray with an article headlined "Background of Messi’s Boss Exposed: CIA involved?" The article noted that Messi’s Florida-based team, Inter Miami, is co-owned and managed by two sons of Jorge Lincoln Mas Canosa, a Cuban immigrant and successful businessman, who was trained in the 1960s by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs invasion and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Within a day, on the Chinese news portal Netease where the Global People article was posted, readers left 43,488 comments. While a large number of fans still feel disappointed and disrespected, many scorned the tabloid’s conspiracy theory. One user wrote: "I’m glad Hong Kong is not mainland China, otherwise a few ‘traitors’ are bound to be found … don’t always put on a political label, it may backfire on yourself one day." Another user called "TAEYEON" suggested that Messi may not have deliberately snubbed the Hong Kong chief executive: "Messi may not know those politicians at all. He didn’t play so he walked away, while only those who played shook hands with Lee, believe it or not." Global Times, a widely circulated Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, suggested a more sinister explanation in a February 7 editorial. "Hong Kong intends to build a mega economy, and some external forces are deliberately using this as a means to embarrass Hong Kong," it said. Messi, who led his native Argentina to victory in the 2022 World Cup before joining the Miami team, has not responded to these accusations, but some Chinese human rights activists hailed his behavior on X and ridiculed China’s reactions. "Toronto Square Face," a commentator with 532,000 followers on X, wrote that “The Global Times has labeled Messi’s behavior as 'embarrassing Hong Kong.' But if a country or a region’s heyday can be destroyed by a sport star, it can only mean this place is already in decline." Gao Yu, a former journalist in China said on her social media X account: "The more Kenneth Fok criticizes Messi, the more isolated China and Hong Kong will become, and the more value will be lost by the pathetic Chinese soccer team." The sports administration in Hangzhou, a prosperous city in eastern China where e-commerce giant Alibaba is based, announced its official decision to cancel a friendly game with Argentina’s national soccer team in March due to "reasons known to all." Christoph Rehage, a German sinologist and China affair commentator, joked to his 173,000 followers on YouTube: "Is Xi Jinping ready to sever diplomatic relations with Argentina now?"