Lionel Messi is one of the world's best-known sports figures. Unscientifically, he's one of the top two most popular players in the world's most popular sport. Scientifically, he's the seventh most popular athlete on the planet, at least according to Sports Illustrated.
Either way, the Argentina-born soccer star is kind of a big deal.
As such, a gift of Messi's match-worn boots (to use soccer, err, "football" parlance) is, in theory, a nice gesture, especially if the plan is to auction them for charity. On Amazon, you can find autographed Messi boots listed as high as $1,144.99. (You can get a better deal on eBay at $795.) It's easy to imagine them going for much higher at a charity auction, where friendly competition in the name of philanthropy could jack up the price.
That was the thinking when Messi, appearing on Arabic television show "Yes, I Am Famous," gave host Mona El-Sharkawy his boots. Typically, guests on the show offer up a souvenir commemorating the appearance, with items later auctioned for charity. Here's Messi making the exchange:
How nice! Messi looks happy. The kids look happy. But not everyone was happy. Via BBC News:
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 offense and turned to social media to express their anger.
"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."
In Arab culture, showing the soles of your shoes can be seen as especially insulting. The Arabic expression "to hit someone with a shoe" is offensive. You might remember the case of Iraqi journalist Muntasir al-Zaydi, who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush in protest at a press conference in Baghdad in 2008.
It wasn't just social media. News of the perceived slight spread quickly, angering much of the country. According to The Telegraph, Said Hasasin, a member of Egypt's parliament, said that the country was "humiliated."
"I will hit you with the shoes, Messi," Hasasin said on an Egyptian television show, holding up one of his own shoes. "This is my shoe. I donate it to Argentina."
Clearly, the whole thing was a misunderstanding, and it's easy to see how it happened. Messi is an Argentine athlete who plays soccer in Europe. He shouldn't be expected to know the intricacies of Arab culture any more than an Egyptian athlete should know Argentine culture. Also, "Yes, I Am Famous" reaches a primarily Egyptian audience, but airs on a Saudi television station. Even if Messi knew giving his shoes would offend Egyptians, he may not have known he was reaching them. (Saudis also view showing the sole of a shoe as an insult, but it's possible Messi would have believed not all Arab states interpret it that way.)
Beyond that, there may have been confusion over intent. According to ESPN, El-Sharkawy said Messi never asked that his shoes be donated to charity—he may simply have left them as a gift for the show, unaware they'd later be auctioned. This could be damage control on El-Sharkawy's part, but she was adamant in her denial.
"That is false," she told Spanish-language sports site Marca, via ESPN. "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."