In photos circulating on Twitter and other social media websites, famous international footballer Lionel Messi is seen signing a t-shirt reading “God Bless Aleppo” above a Syrian flag for one of his fans.
What the Barcelona striker might not have noticed, however, is that the flag he signed is the standard of the Syrian regime of president Bashar al-Assad, whose airstrikes and siege of Aleppo have displaced and killed thousands of residents. In the west side of the city, however, Assad maintains considerable support.
Social media users were quick to respond to Messi’s apparent support of Assad, with many pro-regime users showing their excitement:
“Leo Messi signs the flag of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
It’s reasonable to assume that perhaps the Argentinian footballer isn’t quite familiar enough with the conflict to distinguish between the flags of the various factions, given that Messi tends to keep his political views out of the spotlight. It’s thus perhaps a jump to assume Messi supports the Syrian president.
Nevertheless, this isn’t Messi’s first controversy in the Middle East. In March, he presented his football shoes to the Egyptian people (showing shoes to someone is considered an insult in the region) and unwittingly elicited a storm of anger from the Egyptian people.
Messi’s name was also used in a plot to fool the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, when a European investor pretended to be an official representative from F.C. Barcelona presenting gifts to al-Bashir.