Lionel Messi’s three days of adulation in Hong Kong ended in heartbreak for his fans as the Argentinian did not take to the field in Inter Miami’s 4-1 win against a local league XI in a friendly match played during the US club’s preseason tour.
Spectators chanted “refund” and the Hong Kong government said match organisers Tatler Asia may face a reduction in funding after Messi stayed on the bench during the match on Sunday.
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The World Cup-winning captain, who has a hamstring strain, stayed rooted to the bench throughout the game. It brought a show of anger from the near-capacity crowd of 38,323, who had paid upwards of 1,000 Hong Kong dollars ($125) to see their hero, and in many cases five times that amount.
Halfway through the second half, chants of “we want Messi” rose around the Hong Kong Stadium from fans desperate to see one of the greatest footballers of his generation in the much-hyped exhibition game.
The booing became louder during the last 10 minutes when it became clear that the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner would not make even the briefest of cameos.
The jeers rose to a crescendo at the final whistle and Miami co-owner David Beckham was drowned out by booing as he tried to thank the crowd for “their incredible support” while fans signalled their anger with thumbs-down gestures.
The Major Sports Events Committee (MSEC) had granted 15 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.92m) for the event along with a grant of 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($127,854) for the venue, the government said in a statement.
“Regarding Messi not playing the match today, the Government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organisers’ arrangement. The organiser owes all football fans an explanation,” they said.
“The MSEC will take follow-up actions with the organiser according to the terms and conditions, which includes reducing the amount of funding as a result of Messi not playing the match.”
The organisers said they expected Messi and his former Barcelona teammate, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, to play and were extremely disappointed that they did not feature in the match.
“Despite some news reports, Tatler did not have any information about the non-participation of Messi or Suarez prior to kick off,” they said in a statement.
“Messi and Suarez were deemed unfit to play by their team’s medical department, to everyone’s, including ours, disappointment.”
‘I feel cheated’
“I’m just really disappointed,” fan Jonathan Wong told the AFP news agency.
“Everyone is here to see Messi, so I feel a bit cheated.
“Without him, it’s just like another regular Hong Kong Premier League match, where a ticket only costs Hong Kong dollars 80 [$11]. This time, we paid Hong Kong dollars 5,000 [$625].”
Miami coach Gerardo Martino said the club’s medical team had taken the decision after an assessment on Sunday morning.
“We understand the disappointment of the fans for the absence of Leo [Messi] and we ask for their forgiveness,” Martino told reporters.
“We wish we could have sent Leo on for at least a while but the risk was too big.”
It was a bitter end to the days of the Hong Kong “Messi mania”.
Tens of thousands turned up just to watch him train on Saturday, when he did little more than jogging and stretching.
The team hotel was besieged by hundreds of fans trying to glimpse their hero, and a traditional junk boat was cruising around Victoria Harbour with Messi’s face plastered across its sails.
Messi can expect similar scenes in Tokyo when Miami continue their preseason tour with a friendly against J-League champions Vissel Kobe on Wednesday.