A charitable gesture by world’s most famous footballer, Lionel Messi has provoked monumental outrage in Egypt, as a lawmaker and football official took umbrage at the Argentine donating his football boots.
This is coming only few weeks after the Argentine was widely praised for making a young fan’s dream come true when he sent a shirt and a football to an Afghan boy.
The backlash and controversy that trailed Messi’s boots benevolence may not be unconnected to the significance of shoes in Arab culture. Considered one of the lowliest of items, because it literally touches the ground, many Egyptians find it a dirty and inappropriate as a gift.
During a TV interview with the “Yes I am Famous” show, broadcast on MBC’s Misr Channel, the Argentine footballer told the presenter he would like to donate his football boots to be auctioned off for charity.
“One of the things he does is give charity all over the world and these will be among the donations he gives,” Egyptian presenter Mona El-Sharkawy says as she sits across from the celebrity with the red and white boots held up to the camera.
“And he gave these to our program because we will start an auction for them. Messi, Thank you very very much.”
What Messi seems to have failed to appreciate is that in Egypt and other Arab countries in the region, shoes can be used as a symbol of disrespect or insult. So some Egyptians took offence and turned to social media to express their anger.
“We (Egyptians) have never been so humiliated during our seven thousand years of civilization,” Said Hasasin, a controversial parliament member and TV presenter responded during his program Sunday, “I will hit you with the shoes, Messi,” he said, as he held up his own shoes, and mockingly said he would donate his leather lace-ups to Argentina.
“This is an insult to Egyptian people,” he elaborated, thumping his fist on his desk.
Even Egypt’s Football Association spokesman Azmy Megahed chimed in on the issue, saying:
“Our poor don’t need him. Shoes work for him…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. Give your shoes to your country, Argentina is full of poverty.”
The affront was so great that El-Sharkawy had to defend her program publicly on Monday by arguing that donations were not necessarily intended for Egypt’s poor.
“Messi did not even mention Egypt and I did not say the proceeds would go to Egypt,” the anchor said in what appeared to be an attempt to recall the scandal, “I am so surprised that people are accusing us of things that weren’t even said.”