Lionel Messi angers Hong Kong after missing match

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The Hong Kong government has expressed its “extreme disappointment” after Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi angered fans by skipping a long-awaited exhibition match on Chinese soil.

Messi’s failure to play comes as Hong Kong struggles to rebuild its status as a global hub amid a slow post-pandemic economic recovery and sweeping political crackdown by authorities in Beijing.

Many of the more than 38,000 people who attended Sunday’s match between Inter Miami, founded by David Beckham, and the Hong Kong XI chanted: “Refund! Refund!”, after Messi remained on the bench. Inter Miami won the match 4-1.

The Hong Kong government had pinned its hopes on the event to increase the territory’s attractiveness. Billboards featuring Messi’s face occupied prominent spaces in the city center for weeks and tickets for the match cost as much as HK$4,880 (US$620).

“The government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed that Messi was unable to play in the friendly match, nor give explanations in person to fans upon request,” the Hong Kong government said in a statement on Sunday. Hong Kong leader John Lee was among the referees who attended the match.

The saga has also angered local pro-Beijing lawmakers. “This is scandalous!” Congressman Dominic Lee wrote on Facebook. “Messi’s no-show left many visitors disappointed and with bad memories. . .[and]it has damaged the city’s reputation as a tourist spot.”

Event organizer Tatler Asia has received funding of at least HK$16 million from the Hong Kong government, which may now reconsider the funding. “The Office of Culture, Sport and Tourism and the MSEC [Major Sports Events Committee] will rely on the terms and conditions of the agreement in requiring the organizer to assume responsibility, including a reduction in the amount of financing due to Messi’s inability to play the match,” the government statement read.

Tatler Asia had told the government before the match that Messi would play in the second half, Hong Kong Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Kevin Yeung told reporters on Monday. The government was subsequently told that he “could not play due to injury”, after which he suggested that Messi could greet the fans on the pitch, Yeung said, but this did not work.

According to the government’s funding deal with Tatler Asia, Messi was expected to “participate in the match for at least 45 minutes subject to fitness and safety considerations”, Yeung said.

Hong Kong’s struggle to attract big-ticket events has frustrated the government, with the city’s lawmakers arguing last month over why touring musicians such as Taylor Swift had left the city in favor of rival Asian destinations.

In a separate statement, Tatler Asia distanced itself from Messi’s no-show, saying it had no preliminary information on his failure to attend, nor that of former Liverpool star Luis Suárez, who also did not play.

“We, together with all the football fans who attended that match, were eagerly awaiting the participation of Messi and Suárez and we share the disappointment felt by all those who watched,” the organizer said.

Inter Miami coach Gerardo Martino apologized to fans in a post-match press conference but said it was too “risky” for the Argentine star to play.

Fans were left frustrated on Sunday and chanted: “We want Messi, we want Messi!”, mid-match as he sat stone-faced on the bench.

Mark Wong, wearing Messi’s Argentina shirt, said he came to see “Messi and the Hong Kong team.”

“People [in Hong Kong] they love football, but they don’t have the opportunity to watch international matches. Now they can come and watch international matches,” Wong said, adding that it was “disappointing” not to see the star play.

Messi and Inter Miami are expected to leave Hong Kong on Monday. Inter Miami did not respond to a request for comment.

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