A charitable gesture by Lionel Messi turned into a cultural gaffe that angered Egyptians.
Messi, in an appearance on a Saudi channel’s TV show called “Yes, I am famous,” offered his football shoes for a charitable auction, a seemingly nice move guaranteed to bring in some money. Except that in Egypt and other Arab countries, the shoe is symbolic of dirt and often is used as an insult. The show targets a mostly Egyptian audience.
“We have never been humiliated during our 7,000 years of civilization,” Said Hasasin, a member of Egypt’s parliament, said on an Egyptian TV program, holding up a shoe (via The Telegraph). “I will hit you with the shoes, Messi. This is my shoe. I donate it to Argentina.”
Azmy Megahed, a spokesman for the Egyptian FA, called into the show and said (via ESPN): “I am confused, if he intends to humiliate us, then I say he better put these shoes on his head and on the heads of the people supporting him. We don’t need his shoes and we don’t need charity from Jewish or Israeli people. Give your shoes to your country. Argentina is full of poverty.”
Ahmed Hossam Hussein Abdelhamid, the Egyptian former striker known as Mido, now is a football manager and he came to Messi’s defense. “An author’s most prized possession is his pen, a footballer’s most prized possession is his boots,” he tweeted. “I hope we can all stop making us a big deal about this.”
Mona El-Sharkawy, who interviewed Messi, denied that he offered his shoes.
“That is false,” she said, according Marca. “On our show we always request a souvenir from the people we interview and we put those things up for auction for charity. I am shocked by what has happened. Messi never said he was going to donate his boots to charity in Egypt.”
That didn’t keep the conversation from spreading to social media. The BBC reports that opponents of Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi were using the incident to attack the government. A hashtag that translates as “Messi’s_shoes_to_AlSisi’s_people” has been used more than 15,000 times. And the Facebook page of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood “Rabi’ah’s Pulse” published video of El-Sharkawy receiving Messi’s shoes and wrote: “It is not only an insult to Egypt, but rather humiliation to the military gang that killed the innocent and kidnapped President [Muhammad] Morsi.”
The BBC translated several of the tweets that the gesture generated. “This is the most disgusting. He was paid thousands of dollars and at the end he donated his shoes and the stupid presenter was happy,” tweeted one user called @Sala77ar7ash. Another user called @sulimanahmad670 commented: “Egypt’s name is greater than Messi’s shoes. This is a big insult to Egypt,” wrote @sulimanahmad670.
Just how serious the insult is was made clear to the Western world in 2008, when Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi protested a visit by President George W. Bush to Iraq by throwing his shoes at Bush.