Thousands of soccer fans in Hong Kong were disappointed when Argentine superstar Lionel Messi was unable to take to the field for Sunday's friendly against Inter Miami.
The match, which started with overwhelming cheers and joy, ended in boos and calls for refunds at the packed 40,000-seat Hong Kong stadium.
Inter Miami were winless on the global pre-season tour, but to prove their point, they defeated Hong Kong XI 4-1 in an event dubbed Tatler XFEST Hong Kong.
But before the game started and even during it, there was a feeling that the scoreline didn't matter to the fans. More importantly, we got to see World Cup winner and eight-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi shine on the field.
The Hong Kong government also expressed regret that the 36-year-old player did not participate in the match.
“Messi was unable to take part in today's friendly and the government and fans alike are disappointed with the arrangements made by the tournament organizers,” it said in a statement on Sunday. “Event organizers have an obligation to explain to fans.”
New signing Luis Suarez also did not play, despite attending the pre-match press conference, while other promising players Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets only came on as substitutes in the second half.
Louise Delmotte/Associated Press
Messi was left on the bench with an injury in Sunday's match in Hong Kong.
The trip ended on a rather awkward note, with further trophy presentations, fireworks and a speech from club co-owner David Beckham being met with whistles and jeers. The boos continued when the big screen camera panned to Messi.
The change in atmosphere occurred with 20 minutes left in the game – cries of “We want Messi'' gave way to cries of “Where's Messi?'' and boos every time a player other than Messi was substituted on the pitch. rang out.
During the additional time, people could be heard shouting “refund, refund, refund” in both English and Cantonese. Tickets went on sale in December and were priced between HK$880 and HK$4,880 (approximately $113-$624), according to Reuters.
CNN has reached out to event organizer Tatler for comment.
Tatler XFEST said in a statement on Sunday that it was “extremely disappointed” that Messi and Suarez did not play in Hong Kong, and said it had “no information regarding the players' non-participation” before kick-off.
Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said the decision not to use Messi was informed very late and was made at the recommendation of the club's medical staff.
“I understand the fans' reaction to the absence of Leo and Luis,” said an apologetic Martino, who also thanked Hong Kong for the “consideration” he received throughout the weekend.
“This is a decision taken in conjunction with the medical team. We checked their physical health and found that they were at risk of injury if they were unable to go out on the pitch and play.” .
“We understand the disappointment of our fans and ask for your understanding. We would have been happy to play for just a few moments, but the risk was too great.”
Martino was pressed about the nature of Messi's injury, as there were already reports that he had been suffering from a hamstring problem since the last friendly against Al Nasr in Saudi Arabia.
“As you can see from the muscle images, Leo has inflammation in his adductor muscles. We were hoping for an improvement, but the situation has been going on for days,” Martino said, adding that Suarez is on a trip to Saudi Arabia. He added that he injured his knee.
“We are constantly checking in with our medical team and have also had to consider our future MLS obligations.” [Major League Soccer]. So we came to the conclusion that Messi should not play in the match.
“In fact, we are evaluating Leo's condition on a daily basis. Yesterday. [Saturday] he was in final training [session]So, I stayed at the hotel until morning to have it assessed. The decision was not made until the afternoon. ”
Louise Delmotte/Associated Press
Suarez and Martino will speak at a press conference on Friday.
Hong Kong Eleven captain Yap Hung-fai, who appeared in the first half of Sunday's match, said it was “of course very disappointing” not to be able to play against Messi, but was nonetheless grateful for the experience.
“Personally, he doesn't go to Hong Kong very often so he's obviously quite disappointed,” said Yap, who captained a team of players from the First Division.
“But we have to think about our performance and not concentrate too much on an opponent who was still at a high level. We are already happy to be able to play in a packed stadium. Masu.”
Crister Leon, a local Messi superfan who spearheads the city's Argentina national team supporters' club, shared the general sentiment.
“I think everyone is disappointed,” Leon, who named his son Lionel after the forward, told CNN.
“It was unexpected. I expected him to appear for at least five minutes. Otherwise, I wouldn't have paid the ticket price to get in here. I think you heard the vibe, and it's just… I think it's a good thing, but at the same time, it's something that's not expected.
“The Messi thing in Hong Kong has been building up for quite some time. Everyone was very excited and there was a lot of drama regarding the tickets.
“The training session [on Saturday] It was such a shame because he got canceled without doing much. Everyone expected it to be a little closer today, so everyone will be disappointed.
“But as a long-time supporter of his, I fully respect his decision not to play if he's really struggling, because he's 36 years old.
“I blame Inter Miami for scheduling so many friendlies in different locations. They should have invited everyone to come to America. They should have grown their brand internationally. I think he wanted to, and that's understandable.”
Ram Ik/USA Today Sports/Reuters
The match between Inter Miami and Hong Kong Eleven was played in front of a packed crowd.
When the team arrived on Friday, fans packed the hotel where Miami was staying, and “Messimania” gripped the city. Meanwhile, the stadium was already full during the team's public practice the night before.
Enthusiastic support for Messi also spread to mainland China after the Argentina national team played a friendly against Australia in Beijing last summer.
It will be the superstar's seventh visit to China, with an eighth possible in March as Argentina are set to play two friendlies against Nigeria and Ivory Coast in Hangzhou and Beijing.
Inter Miami are currently in Japan for a friendly match against Vissel Kobe on Wednesday.