HONG KONG — Lionel Messi’s three days of adulation in Hong Kong ended in heartbreak for his fans as the Argentine did not take to the field in Inter Miami’s 4-1 win against a local League XI in a friendly played in front of a sellout crowd on Sunday.
Spectators chanted “refund” and the Hong Kong government said match organizers Tatler Asia may face a reduction in funding after Messi stayed on the bench during the match.
The Major Sports Events Committee (MSEC) had granted 15 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.92 million) for the event along with a 1 million Hong Kong dollar grant 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 organizers’ arrangement. The organizer owes all football fans an explanation,” they said.
“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 organizers 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.”
Some 40,000 fans had flocked to Hong Kong Stadium for Saturday’s training session, chanting “Messi! Messi! Messi!” and holding aloft copies of his number 10 jersey as he and club co-owner David Beckham interacted with local children.
“I started watching football because of Messi. He’s been my idol since day one,” said 16-year-old Aasir Mubarak. “It’s my first day looking at Messi in person, so it’s going to be a very special day and I’ll remember this for life.”
The World Cup winner had been mobbed by adoring fans decked out in Argentina’s blue and white or Miami’s pink since landing from Saudi Arabia on Friday, with hundreds waiting outside the team hotel to try and get a glimpse of the 36-year-old.
“I feel especially excited today because I’ve been a big fan of Messi since 2014 when I started watching football, but I never had the chance to get close to him,” said Gary Sheng, a 19-year-old student.
“Today, words can’t describe my feelings. When the football king is just a few meters away from you, this excitement is beyond words. I just feel incredibly happy.”
Hong Kongers clamored for match tickets, costing between 880 and 4,880 Hong Kong dollars, when they went on sale in December, snapping them up within an hour amid excitement over Messi playing his first match in the territory since 2014.
The eight-time Ballon d’Or winner can expect similar scenes in Tokyo when Miami continues its preseason tour with a friendly against J-League champions Vissel Kobe on Wednesday.
It kicks off its Major League Soccer campaign versus Real Salt Lake on Feb. 21.