The world’s top soccer player is facing a backlash in Egypt after donating his shoes to charity during an interview on Egyptian TV.
Lionel Messi, a 28-year-old Argentine forward, presented host Mona el-Sharkawy a pair of his soccer cleats during her "Yes I Am Famous" show last week on independent TV channel MBC MASR, with the understanding that they would be sold and the proceeds donated to charity.
But the usually sure-footed Messi had stumbled into a cultural minefield. The gesture was seen as an insult by many Egyptians, whose culture considers it humiliating to be offered anyone's shoes.Lionel Messi Victor R. Caivano / Associated Press
A fan who ran onto the field shines the cleats of Argentina's Lionel Messi at the end of a training session at Independencia Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 2014.
A fan who ran onto the field shines the cleats of Argentina's Lionel Messi at the end of a training session at Independencia Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 2014.(Victor R. Caivano / Associated Press)
“In my humble opinion, I find what Messi did to be pathetic,” talk show host Saied Hasasseen said on the Al-Aasemah TV network.
“Don’t you know that the nail of an Egyptian child is worth more than your shoes?" he continued, addressing Messi. "Keep your shoes for yourself or go sell it for your own benefit.”
Hasasseen, who is also a member of parliament, then took off his own shoes and offered to donate them to Argentina. “Egyptian people are great people, who have dignity and have their own shoes," he said.
The uproar recalled some of the events that took place in Iraq during and after the 2002 U.S. invasion. When Iraqis toppled a statue of dictator Saddam Hussein, some men famously took off their shoes and slapped the statue's face with them.George Bush, Nouri al-Maliki AP
In this image from APTN video, a man throws a shoe at President George W. Bush, left, during a 2008 news conference in Baghdad.
In this image from APTN video, a man throws a shoe at President George W. Bush, left, during a 2008 news conference in Baghdad.(AP)
And President George W. Bush got a lesson in the symbolism of footwear at a news conference in Baghdad in 2008 when an enraged Iraqi journalist took off a shoe and threw it at him. Bush ducked and wasn't hit; the thrower became a hero to many in the Arab world.
Hasasseen’s comments about Messi were echoed by many on social media in Egypt.
“This is the level that Egypt has succumbed to," a Twitter user who goes by @dryassersaber tweeted. "The Argentine soccer player giving away his boots is just a mockery of poor Egyptians.”
In the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria, a man filed a lawsuit against Messi, accusing him of insulting Egyptians. Mustafa Ragab told local media that “what Messi did is offending to all Egyptians,” adding that his legal action would send a message that Egypt won’t accept such “encroachment.”
El-Sharkawy, the host of "Yes I Am Famous," was similarly pilloried for accepting Messi’s offer. She responded by saying that it is her custom to accept gifts from the show's celebrity guests.
“It’s a trend on our show that we take a souvenir from our guest and put it on auction for charity,” El-Sharkawy told the Sada el-Balad TV channel. “I am surprised. I didn’t say we will be giving it to charity in Egypt or any other place. I don’t know why they said he is presenting it to Egypt. This was never said.”See the most-read stories this hour >>Read the story
While a number of retired Egyptian soccer stars called on Messi to apologize for the incident, former Tottenham Hotspur and Egyptian international player Ahmed Hossam, known as Mido, was one of the few to defend the four-time world player of the year.
“The most precious thing the writer owns is his pen, and the most precious thing the painter owns is his brush and the most precious thing a football player owns is his shoes. I hope we stop the false accusations,” Mido tweeted.
Messi has not commented on the reaction to his gift.
Hassan is a special correspondent.