Messi a no-show in Hong Kong; outrage ensues after Inter Miami star doesn't play

Furious fans jeered and chanted “refund” during the match.

February 5, 2024, 12:04 PM

HONG KONG -- Furious fans booed, jeered and chanted "refund" during Inter Miami's much-hyped friendly match in Hong Kong Sunday as Lionel Messi remained on the sidelines for the contest's entire 90 minutes, despite pre-game assurances that the superstar player would take the pitch.

Public anger and a blame game has overshadowed the Major League Soccer team's 4-1 victory over the local side in front of more than 38,000 fans, each of whom had paid up to $620 for a ticket.

After the match, Inter Miami head coach Gerardo Martino said Messi had been suffering from muscle inflammation, but many fans questioned why he didn't at least walk onto the pitch or greet the crowd, which also booed during a speech by Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham.

"Despite getting booed, Beckham showed class," said Jay Ganglani, a student in Hong Kong who attended the game. "He still went around the stadium and thanked everyone for coming."

However, Ganglani said the disappointment among fans at Messi's absence was palpable, especially since some had travelled to Hong Kong just to see Messi in action.

"There were a lot of Messi fans in my area, as there were everywhere around the stadium. Some people had flown from overseas to see Messi play, so I felt for them in particular," Ganglani said.

Inter Miami's Argentine forward Lionel Messi sits on the bench during the friendly football match between Hong Kong XI and US Inter Miami CF in Hong Kong on February 4, 2024.
Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

In the lead up to Monday's game, Messi's face was plastered on advertisement billboards around Hong Kong, and was even featured on the side of a traditional junk boat in the city's harbor.

On Monday evening, the organizer of the sold-out event, Tatler Asia, announced they will withdraw their application for government funding for the event, worth about $2 million. Earlier in the day, Hong Kong officials released a statement that threatened to withhold that funding.

In a press conference on Monday, Hong Kong's Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin Yeung said the Hong Kong government's requests for Messi to play – or to at least lift the trophy or address the crowd – went unanswered.

Yeung said that, even just before kickoff, officials were led to believe that Messi would play in the second half, and it wasn't until at least halftime that they learned he wouldn't be taking to the pitch at all.

The Hong Kong government, which has been trying to lure tourists back to the city in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, said its contract with Tatler specified that Messi would play for at least 45 minutes, subject to safety and fitness concerns.

Inter Miami's pre-season tour continues in Tokyo, where Beckham's side will face Japan's champions, Vissel Kobe, on Wednesday. It's unclear whether Messi will appear in that game.

ABC News' Helena Skinner contributed to this report.

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