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What happened to the Lionel Messi theme park in China that never opened?

What happened to the Lionel Messi theme park in China that never opened?

What happened to it?

On Wednesday it was announced that Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami had cancelled a tour to China due to “unforeseen circumstances” related to the recent death of former Chinese premier Li Keqiang.

It would have been at least the eighth time that Messi, now an eight-time Ballon d’Or winner, had played in China.

His absence, however, bound to disappoint the 100,000 total attendance for the two planned matches, is only the Argentine’s latest ‘no-show’ of sorts in the Far East.

Six years ago it was revealed that a Chinese theme park carrying Messi’s name would open its doors in 2020.

Mediapro, who launched the ambitious project alongside the Phoenix Group and Leo Messi Management, promised that the experience would allow punters to line up alongside a version of the pint-sized star at the theme park, which would be based in Nanjing.

They said you would even be able to ‘speak’ to the Argentina international, learn about Messi's origins in Rosario and experience success and defeat alongside him.

And though it sounded like a tempting proposition to anyone with a Spanish Duolingo streak, a morsel of football ability and £600 for a Heathrow to Nanjing return flight, the theme park never opened.

There was huge initial reporting on the project and the promise of it opening in 2020.

Of course, that year a deadly global pandemic quite rightly took precedence over a football theme park promising “VR experiences” with a socially awkward Argentinian man.

But since then the the pandemic has become an endemic, Messi has won the World Cup and another pair of Ballon d’Ors and still, nobody seems to have any idea if the Nanjing Messi amusement park will ever open.

Buenos Aires Morning Herald claimed last December it had been “delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. A Sportsmanor article ambiguously stated the same month that “The Messi theme park is set to open soon” while observing: “Currently, there’s little news about when the theme park is set to open.” The Athletic provided some specificity, however, claiming ‘The Messi Experience’ is due to open in Nanjing, China next year (2024). They said little else on the matter.

SPORTbible reached out to Mediapro boss David Xirau asking for an update but never received a reply. We also contacted Inter Miami on the subject but again, no one responded.

Rather optimistically, we took our query to the Chinese FA, hoping for a first-ever link-up between SPORTbible and the Chinese state. Again we heard nothing.

A last ditch, desperate search for the Nanjing site on Google Maps and still, no luck.

So what happened? Here are three theories.

China no longer prioritises football?

One theory is that China has simply lost interest in football. In 2011, Xi Jinping announced his lofty ambition of turning China from a footballing minnow to a global force.

The Messi theme park was announced a year after the Chinese FA unveiled plans to make the country a “world football superpower” by 2050. A Nanjing amusement park was very much in line with this plan.

Indeed, upon being unveiled the project was heralded as a celebration of not just Messi, but football, while Xirau, the aforementioned head of MediaPro, told Marca that its location had been influenced by the game’s exponential growth in China due to “the authorities’” support.

But more than a decade on from when Xi first outlined his dream, China’s football fortunes have fallen.

Poor investment, an alleged high-level corruption scandal and a three-year global pandemic have left the country’s football aspirations in tatters.

Indeed, China’s strict “zero-Covid” policy meant players were required to compete in bio-secure venues that they were unable to leave for months at a time. This led to an exodus of the Chinese Super League’s most iconic players, including Hulk, Paulinho and Alex Teixeira.

Moreover, strict pandemic rules meant fewer fans watched live games, which led to fewer sponsors and less money.

The country's interest in football has waned - could this have led to a loss of enthusiasm in a theme park that once promised to attract 4-5 million visitors a year?

Messi won a record-extending eighth Ballon d'Or on Monday (Getty)
Messi won a record-extending eighth Ballon d'Or on Monday (Getty)

China can’t afford a Messi theme park due to economic collapse?

Another theory, that is somewhat aligned with the first, is that though China may still have the appetite for a Messi theme park, it can’t afford it.

Chinese property giant The Evergrande Group collapsed in 2021, sparking the country’s worst property market crisis on record. The upheaval at the company worsened in September this year after its chairman was placed under police surveillance and current and former executives were detained.

Why does this matter? Well, beyond having an impact on China’s entire financial system, many people bought property from Evergrande before building work began.

Since the collapse homes have been left unfinished, suppliers allegedly haven’t been paid and some of the millions of Chinese people who put their savings in property-linked hedge funds face the prospect of not getting their money back. Essentially China is on the brink of a credit crunch.

Hulk was among an influx of global stars to the Chinese Super League (Getty)
Hulk was among an influx of global stars to the Chinese Super League (Getty)

As China’s second-largest development firm, it is also possible the development of the theme park was directly through Evergrande, or another real estate company on the brink, Country Garden.

Essentially, it’s a bad time to build a house in China, let alone a big, obnoxious amusement park. Plans for the latter may have been shelved for this reason.

Messi's theme park is still in the works?

Perhaps the Messi theme park is still happening. Maybe it has merely been delayed by Covid.

If so, however, they should probably hurry. The Chinese FA would have been frustrated to discover that a similar concept, also seemingly run by Mediapro, has already been opened in Miami, Florida.

While US-China tensions have not yet culminated in a big Messi theme park arms race, the Nanjing project may have lost some sheen and prestige due to the existence of its Miami counterpart.

Either way, perhaps China's 'The Messi Experience' is still in the works. We just have to wait and see.

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Featured Image Credit: Mediapro

Topics: Lionel Messi, Argentina, Chinese Super League, Inter Miami