On Feb. 3, Hong Kong football fans became furious after football legend Lionel Messi remained medically benched during a friendly match arranged between Inter Miami and Hong Kong league XI. His absence, in addition to the absence of fellow footballer Luis Suarez, prompted authorities to consider cutting funding for the event.
Messi, along with Uruguayan player Luis Suarez, were to be part of the U.S. club’s international team, Inter Miami, against local Hong Kong XI in a match organized by Tatler Asia. Despite the former’s victory — with a 4-1 win — the two decided to sit the match out, with Messi claiming that he had suffered a hamstring strain.
His absence on the field incited a wave of resentment from fans throughout the city, especially the 38,323 spectators who each paid HK$1,000 ($125) to watch the event. Messi’s and Suarez’s participation was widely promoted prior to the event.
The cries only got louder halfway through the event, with chants of “we want Messi” echoing across the Hong Kong stadium from fans eager to see the legend in action, al-Jazeera reported. Once the event came to its end, the outcries only got louder.
“I’m just disappointed,” fan Jonathan Wong told AFP. “Everyone is here to see Messi, so I feel a bit cheated.
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“Without him, it’s just like another regular Hong Kong Premier League match, where a ticket only costs [HK$80] ($11). This time, we paid [HK$5,000] ($625).”
Following the event, the Hong Kong government made two statements to grab the public’s support, and threatened to sever sponsorship funding to Tatler Asia.
The first statement addressed the government’s and the people’s immense disappointment about the organizer’s inability to bring Messi into the match.
“Regarding Messi not playing the match today, the Government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organizers’ arrangement. The organizer owes all football fans an explanation,” the statement read.
Hong Kong’s Major Sports Events Committee (MSEC) granted HK$15 million ($1.92 million) for the event, with another HK$1 million ($128,000) for a grant for the location.
“The MSEC will take follow-up actions with the organizer according to the terms and conditions, which includes reducing the amount of funding as a result of Messi not playing the match.”
The second statement mentioned the fact that many tourists visited Hong Kong to see Messi and Suarez play, and that Inter Miami failed to meet their expectations.
Tatler Asia said it was not aware of the “non-participation” of Messi or Suarez during the match.
“Messi and Suarez were deemed unfit to play by their team’s medical department, to everyone’s, including ours, disappointment,” a statement by Tatler Asia read.
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In Messi’s defense
According to Inter Miami coach Gerardo Martino, their medical team made the decision to pull Messi out after an assessment early 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.”
Messi did come out to deliver a few words to the many fans left wanting for his appearance.
“I always want to play, especially in these games where we travel so far and people want to see our games,” he said, according to the BBC.
“Unfortunately this happens in football. In any game it can happen that you can’t play.
“I hope we can return and play a game in Hong Kong.”
According to the BBC, chants of “Refund!” by the crowd raged throughout when Inter Miami’s co-founder David Beckham tried to appease the masses with a speech.