Some Egyptians Are Not Flattered by Messi's Offer to Donate His Shoes to Charity

The Argentinian soccer superstar meant well when he made the offer on tv, but he forgot an important detail: Shoes are a symbol of grave disrespect in Arab countries.
March 29, 2016, 3:45pm
Photo via EPA

Soccer megastar Lionel Messi has lots of fans in Egypt. He's appeared in immensely popular Arabic-language KFC and Pepsi commercials, and youngsters wearing his jerseys are easy to spot around Cairo.

But the Barcelona forward's appearance on the Egyptian TV show "Yes, I'm Famous," over the weekend is drawing more jeers than cheers. At the end of an interview that aired Saturday night, the Argentinian striker handed his shoes to the anchor and requested that the show auction them off and donate the revenue to charity.

"When Messi gave the anchor his shoes; he disrespected and humiliated Egypt, as well as all Arabs," Mohamed Husseiny, a parliamentarian from Giza, said on Tuesday. "We don't need his charity. Maybe he should take it somewhere else."

In the Arab world's most populous country, kicking around a soccer ball — often in alleys rather than on pitches — is a national obsession. Tens of millions of Egyptians regularly tune in to watch soccermatches broadcast from cities hundreds of miles away, cheering on teams that compete in a league a continent away. Superstars like Messi are idols.

But even idols can't cross certain red lines, and as Messi found out, shoes, a symbol of deep disrespect in Arab culture, are a big one. Since Messi made his comments over the weekend, more than one member of the Egyptian parliament, as well as Egypt's own soccer stars, have lambasted the star for his insensitivity.

"I will hit you with the shoes, Messi," parliament member and TV presenter Saied Hasassein said on television shortly after the megastar made his offer.

Although Messi never directly said that the shoe revenue was earmarked for Egypt specifically, where 26 percent of its 90 million people live below the poverty line, it seems many Egyptians found the gesture humiliating.

"This is my shoe," Hasassein said as he took his shoe off, while on air. "I donate it to Argentina."

"Why don't you give your shoes to your own country," Egyptian Football Association spokesman Azmy Megahed said while calling in to the show in frustration. "Argentina is full of poverty."

One Egyptian citizen has already filed a complaint to prosecute Messi. The charge: "humiliating Egyptians".

Still, others took the gesture in stride.

"The most precious thing a footballer owns is his shoes," tweeted former Tottenham Hotspur FC and Egypt striker Ahmed Hossam, known as Mido.

Collectors and wealthy sport enthusiasts have always been keen on buying athletes' belongings at charity auctions. The boxing gloves worn by Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston during the 1965 rematch fight were sold for nearly $1 million. In the soccer world, Mario Götze's World Cup-winning shoe was auctioned off for charity, raising €2 million.

And in Egypt, shoes weren't certainly the only unusual thing on sale to combat poverty. At the end of last month, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he was committed to solving Egypt's worsening debt crisis and "would go as far as selling myself if it would help." Within a few hours, one snarky Egyptian took the leader at his word, and offered him up for sale on eBay. "Slightly used field marshal and doctor of philosophy with a military background," the product description read. Bidders were intrigued, so much so that the listing quickly reached $100,000 before it was removed.