Lionel Messi angers Hong Kong after sitting out match

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Hong Kong’s government has expressed its “extreme disappointment” after Argentine football star Lionel Messi angered fans by sitting out of a long-anticipated exhibition game in the Chinese territory.

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

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

Hong Kong’s government had pinned its hopes on the event to boost the territory’s appeal. Billboards featuring Messi’s face occupied prominent city centre slots for weeks, and tickets for the game cost up to HK$4,880 (US$620).

“The Government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed that Messi could neither play in the friendly match, nor explain to the fans in person upon request,” Hong Kong’s government said in a statement on Sunday. Hong Kong leader John Lee was among the officials who attended the match.

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

Event organiser Tatler Asia had been awarded at least HK$16mn in funding from the Hong Kong government, which may now reconsider the funding. “The Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau and the MSEC [Major Sports Events Committee] will rely on the terms and conditions of the agreement in requiring the organiser to take responsibility, including a reduction of the amount of funding as a result of Messi being not able to play in the match,” the government statement said.

Tatler Asia had told the government ahead of the match that Messi would play in the second half, Hong Kong’s culture, sports and tourism minister Kevin Yeung told reporters on Monday. The government was later told that he “could not play due to injury”, after which it suggested Messi could greet fans on the pitch, Yeung said, but this did not work out.

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Under the government’s funding agreement with Tatler Asia, Messi had been due 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 legislators in the city debating last month why touring musicians such as Taylor Swift had skipped the city in favour of rival Asian destinations.

In a separate statement, Tatler Asia distanced itself from Messi’s no-show, saying it had no prior information about his non-participation, nor that of former Liverpool star Luis Suárez, who also did not play.

“We, alongside all football fans who attended that match, had been eagerly anticipating Messi’s and Suárez’s participation and share in the disappointment felt by everyone watching,” the organiser said.

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

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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, who was wearing a Messi Argentina shirt, said he came to see “Messi and the Hong Kong team”.

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

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