Why Hong Kong Is Mad Over Messi

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Updated: | Originally published:

Hong Kong entered the weekend mad for Lionel Messi, with legions of soccer fans in the Chinese enclave highly anticipating the arrival of TIME’s Athlete of the Year as his MLS team Inter Miami were set to play an exhibition match against a local Hong Kong team on Sunday.

But by the time the final whistle was blown, the 40,000 spectators at the sold-out stadium, along with sponsors including the Hong Kong government, were more mad at Messi as well as at organizers of the event, booing the Argentine player considered by many to be the greatest of all time after he remained on the bench for the full match.

The fiasco even prompted rebuke from Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee, who on Tuesday pressed Tatler Asia, the organizer of the event, to disclose details of its deal with Inter Miami and respond to disappointed football fans. 

“In promoting this event, the government did a lot of work to coordinate and provide assistance to the organizer to strive for the best possible outcome. The performance of the organizer has an impact on Hong Kong’s image and reputation,” Lee said. “The government also has the responsibility to ensure public funding is spent appropriately, especially when such an event is sponsored by the government.”

Tatler Asia CEO Michel Lamuniere said at a press conference on Monday that the company would withdraw its application for HK$16 million in government grants for the event. Lamuniere added that Tatler was only told that Messi would not be playing at half-time and that they informed the government “immediately.”

A junk boat featuring a Messi ad sails across Victoria Harbour on Feb. 2, 2024.Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images

Before the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner arrived in Hong Kong as part of Inter Miami’s first-ever international tour, the city had already been steeped in days of Messi mania—the player’s face was plastered across giant screens as well as on a boat that sailed around the harbor for an eye-catching Adidas advertisement campaign, while pop-up stores modeled after the Inter Miami changing room sold Messi’s No. 10 jersey and other merchandise.

Messi arrived in Hong Kong on Friday ahead of the Tatler XFEST exhibition match to be held at Hong Kong Stadium. According to Tatler, the match was meant to “elevate Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s World City.” It was also part of a tourism strategy by Hong Kong authorities, which had dedicated over HK$15 million ($1.92 million) in grants to the event.

Tickets for the match were sold out within an hour of its announcement in December, according to Tatler. Klook, the event’s official ticketing partner, listed the prices as ranging between HK$880 ($113) and HK$4,880 ($624). Tickets for an Inter Miami open training session on Saturday, which cost HK$580 ($74) to HK$780 ($100), were also sold out.

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But despite the weekend’s lineup of activities, including performances by popular local acts like members of boyband Mirror, Hong Kongers’ hopes to see some of Messi’s magic on the field morphed into deep disappointment, with Inter Miami coach Gerardo Martino explaining later that he did not want to risk exacerbating a hamstring injury Messi is nursing by putting him on the pitch.

Even without Messi—or his teammate, the famed Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez, who was similarly benched over injury concerns—Inter Miami won the friendly against Hong Kong XI 4-1.

“We wish we could have sent Leo and Luis on for at least a while but the risk was too big,” Martino told reporters. “We understand a lot of fans are very disappointed and we ask for their forgiveness.”

The fallout

As spectators grew increasingly irate over the course of Sunday’s match, chants for Messi to get on the pitch transitioned into calls for ticket refunds, and a post-game speech by Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham was punctuated with loud booing.

Hong Kong Soccer Inter Miami
Fans react to Messi’s lack of playing time at the Hong Kong Stadium on Feb. 4, 2024.Louise Delmotte—AP

After the match, anger continued to fester. The Hong Kong government, which had reportedly been in talks with Inter Miami last week about Messi’s promotional activities in the city, expressed its dissatisfaction in a statement: “Many Hong Kong fans looked forward to the match with enthusiasm, and a lot of tourists came to Hong Kong particularly for the match,” the statement said. “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.”

The statement also said the government would review the details of its contract with the organizer to see if a reduction of its funding would apply as a result of Messi not playing.

The Hong Kong government has been actively courting international stars as part of its post-COVID economic recovery efforts. Messi’s arrival this month was eyed by authorities as a chance to boost the city’s global reputation—especially after criticisms of the city missing the opportunity to host Taylor Swift, whose concerts are known to revitalize local economies.

Read More: How Singapore Has Become a Favorite Venue for Top Artists—and Why That’s Upsetting Some Asian Fans

For its part, Tatler said that it “did not have any information about the non-participation of Messi or Suárez prior to kick off.”

“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,” said a statement published by Tatler Hong Kong. 

But explanations and apologies have done little to appease anger over the event. “This is not just a disappointment. This is humiliation to the entire HK community,” one fan commented in response to Tatler’s statement on Instagram. 

This hasn’t been the only hiccup of Inter Miami’s 2024 preseason tour. Last week, Inter Miami faced off against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, in a match billed as the “last dance” between the two best players of their generation. But fans were similarly disappointed as Ronaldo sat out of the entire game due to a muscle injury while Messi only came on as a substitute for the last few minutes. 

Inter Miami are scheduled to play against Japan’s Vissel Kobe in Tokyo on Wednesday. The removal of the match from Apple TV’s streaming lineup sparked speculations that the match might be canceled, though MLS later clarified that the removal was due to logistical difficulties. Meanwhile, Messi says that he is now in better shape than he was in Hong Kong. 

“Unfortunately, in football, things can happen in any game, that we may have an injury,” Messi told reporters at a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday about his absence from the match in Hong Kong. “It’s a shame because I always want to participate, I want to be there, and even more so when it comes to these games when we travel so far and people are so excited to see our matches.”

“The truth is that I feel very good compared to a few days ago,” he added, though he didn’t confirm whether he would lace up before Japanese fans. “If I’m honest, I still don’t know if I will be able to or not. But I feel much better and I really want to be able to do it.”

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