Lionel Messi has been subject to fresh controversy after reports emerged claiming the Barcelona superstar was paid "at least £2.4 million in cash" for an appearance with Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba.
Messi laid the first stone of a stadium being built in Port-Gentil for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, according to French outlet France Football (via the Daily Mail's Peter Allen). In his attempt to explain Messi's appearance, President Bongo is quoted as saying, "When I was in Barcelona a few years ago, I met Messi, who had told me that he would come to visit me in Libreville. It's a promise he made me. He is a man of honour who just kept his word."
Gabon's French embassy later issued a statement, denying making any payment to Messi, according to EFE (via Sport).
"The Republic of Gabon firmly deny to have transferred or to have promised to transfer any sum of money to the Argentine international Lionel Messi. He was in Gabon on July 17 and 18 following an invitation from Ali Bongo."
Allen refers to President Bongo as "one of the most corrupt dictators" on the continent and references accusations of human rights abuse.
Per the Daily Mail report, Messi's appearance and presumed support for the regime has sparked outrage:
But the Barcelona and Argentina striker, who is facing trial for tax fraud in Spain, also helped with the opening of a new Bongo family restaurant, and showed full support for their regime.
"People are outraged about this," said an opposition source in the country, which is regularly linked with corruption and human rights abuses. "Messi should do a bit of research into what Bongo represents."
The Union du Peuple Gabonese, Bongo's political opposition, released a statement criticizing Messi's decision to come, and the way in which he dressed, per Ian Holyman of ESPN FC:
"The messiah of football arrived in Gabon like he were going to a zoo: dirty, unshaven and his hands in his pockets, looking for peanuts to throw to them!
"When you're called Lionel Messi and you're a multi-billionaire, you don't have the right to present yourself to officials of a republic, even a banana one, with your hands in the pockets of a ripped, tattered pair of shorts.
"Gabon isn't a zoo. We don't know what the Argentine came to Gabon for, but we at least have the right to denounce his negligence and his lack of respect for standards and principles. We are uneasy with Messi's attitude and his attire. Only for these reasons, linked to respect for the host country, do we condemn the footballer's indelicateness, to say the least!"
This isn't the first time Bongo has used his political power to draw one of football's biggest faces to his cause, either. In 2012, France 24's Dan Levy reported on Pele making a very similar appearance with the president:
One-third of the Gabonese population live "at or below the poverty line," according to World Bank statistics Allen cited in his report, calling into question whether Messi's "rental" made for an intelligent use of funds.
As for Messi, these latest reported earnings could serve to cause some confusion regarding the methods by which football's biggest brand markets himself.