Lionel Messi Slammed for 'Partying with Oppressors' by Human Rights Foundation

Matt JonesFeatured ColumnistAugust 3, 2015

Argentinian soccer player and four-time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi (C) is given a tour during the start of construction of the Port-Gentil Stadium by the President of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba (R) in the Ntchengue district of Port-Gentil on July 18, 2015. Gabon will host the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament. AFP PHOTO / STEVE JORDAN        (Photo credit should read Steve Jordan/AFP/Getty Images)

The Human Rights Foundation has issued a scathing attack on Lionel Messi in the wake of his recent visit to Gabon, accusing the Barcelona icon of “partying with oppressors.”

Messi was in the country last month to apparently fulfil a promise he made to president Ali Bongo, laying the first brick of a new stadium in Port-Gentil. But the player standing alongside the figurehead of this controversial regime has drawn plenty of criticism, most recently from HRF President Thor Halvorssen, per Marca:

In providing PR services to Gabon's Bongo family, Lionel Messi has seriously undermined the credibility of his own charitable foundation.

Whereas Messi claims to support children's rights, and even serves as a UNICEF ambassador to promote youth education, he has endorsed a kleptocratic regime that refuses to investigate the ritual murder of children in Gabon.

HRF's chief strategy officer, Alex Gladstein, added, "If Messi wants to do good in Gabon, HRF recommends that rather than partying with oppressors, he release a statement in solidarity with the country's persecuted dissidents and environmentalists, and press the regime to investigate the ritual murders of children."

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi looks on during the 2015 Copa America final football match against Chile, in Santiago, Chile, on July 4, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JUAN MABROMATA        (Photo credit should read JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images)

According to French outlet France Football (h/t the Daily Mail's Peter Allen), Messi was paid a reported £2.4 million in cash for visiting the country, but that claim has been denied, per EFE (h/t Sport).

Messi has been lambasted for showing solidarity with a government Allen describes as “corrupt” in his piece. The Union du Peuple Gabonais, the political opposition to Bongo, accused the Barca man of treating the country like he was “going to a zoo,” per Ian Holyman of ESPN FC. A source in Allen’s piece also implored Messi to “do a bit of research into what Bongo represents.”

As noted here by BBC's Oluwashina Okeleji, the brick which Messi put in place has apparently gone missing too:

Oluwashina Okeleji @oluwashina

Foundation stones laid for the 2017 AFCON stadium in Gabon by Lionel Messi & President Ali Bongo Ondimba have gone missing, L'Union reports.

Bongo is a hugely controversial leader. Not only has he been accused of the killing of children and various human rights breaches, he’s also had to withstand claims of electoral fraud, per beIN Sports.

The country is set to host the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, but as part of the HRF’s statement, Halvorssen cast aspersions over their credibility to do so, per Joe Wright of Goal.com:

Messi's trip is part of the Bongo family's PR campaign to promote the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, which Gabon will host at enormous expense despite the fact that the Bongo family's embezzlement has left 20 per cent of the population to live on less than $2 per day.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JULY 13: President of Gabon Ali Bongo Odimba attends the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Final match between Germany and Argentina at Estadio Maracana on July 13, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

For Messi, this has been a public relations disaster. While the Argentina skipper has been unanimously respected by the football world for his majesty on the pitch, his work off it with charities—such as UNICEF, per Aaron Flanagan of the Daily Mirror—have only enhanced his popularity. But this venture to Gabon has drawn negative focus.

To have one of the world’s most prestigious figures showing backing for the maligned Bongo regime will be a big blow for those striving for a brighter future for Gabon. However, criticism of Messi is yet to draw any reaction from the player himself.