This is one act of generosity that ended badly for Messi. While the little kid in Afghanistan couldn’t be more thrilled when the Argentinean hero gave him the shirt off his back, he far from warmed the cockles of many an Egyptian heart when he offered them the shoes off his feet, expensive though they may be. When he put his football boots on auction on Egyptian TV show “Yes I Am Famous” on MBC’s Misr Channel, he earned himself the wrath of an entire nation.
Some Arab cultural context: you shouldn’t even be showing someone the sole of your shoe, much less giving it to them. It’s the very closest thing to the ground and is on the lowest (and arguably stinkiest) part of the body. Your innocuous footwear is considered so downright offensive that even crossing your ankle to your knee is a heinous slight. This is why Bush was assaulted by a shoe, why the flags of hated nations are placed on the ground and why mosques forbid shoes on the premises. Showing someone your shoe or touching them with it is a symbol of utmost disrespect in the Middle East, akin to calling them the filthiest of unclean creatures, the dog.
So it was an incredible social faux pas for Messi to make in Egypt and even more incredible that the show host Mona al-Sharqawi accepted his gesture, with her hands, no less. The nation took to social media to decry his thoughtless act.
One user tweeted, “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.
And another chimed in, “Egypt’s name is greater than Messi’s shoes. This is a big insult to Egypt.”
We do understand where some of their outrage is coming from. A soccer star of Messi’s calibre with a such massive international fanbase should have been aware of the social cultural mores of the nations that support his career. It would not have been too difficult a task to have been briefed about what not to do in front of your audience of the day.
As far as we’re concerned, a large portion of the blame lies with the tv programme. If it had been that important to keep Messi in the good books of the Egyptian viewers, how could they have so blatantly overlooked a blunder on this scale? Even if they hadn’t anticipated him literally telling them to eat his shoes, couldn’t they have done some damage control? Turned them away with a smile? Cue cards prompting him to abort mission? Something.
On the other hand, we feel like perhaps this is rather strong a reaction for an innocent mistake. As awful as the implied meaning of such a gesture may be, surely most rational people are aware that he’s probably not really telling them to eat dirt.
Considering how massive a fanbase he has throughout the world, it is quite a task to keep up with every single custom in every single country in order to avoid stepping on toes. We think that people should just appreciate the thought behind the gesture and be able to laugh at the misunderstandings between cultures. After all, football is a game of the world and sometimes, there is nothing more beautiful about the world than its differences.