Messi’s unannounced absence sparks outrage in HK

HK govt expresses disappointment over lack of prompt explanation
Lionel Messi’s unannounced absence from a friendly match between the Hong Kong soccer team and his club Inter Miami on Sunday sparked disappointment and anger among fans present at the stadium. Officials from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government have also demanded an explanation.

On Monday night, the organizer of the match, Tatler Asia, described the incident as a disappointing ending and expressed their regret on behalf of the fans. During a press conference, the organizer stated that their contract with Inter Miami stipulated that Messi would play if he was not injured. Upon learning that Messi would not be able to participate in the match, they requested alternative forms of interaction from him, but without success.

The organizer stated that they have withdrawn their previous application for funding from the HKSAR government. The event had earlier been awarded a grant of HK$15 million ($1.92 million) and a grant for venue of HK$1 million by the Major Sports Events Committee (MSEC).

However, the organizers failed to respond to fans’ request for a refund.

The atmosphere at the Sunday match was clearly divided into three distinct stages, a veteran soccer journalist who reported on the scene told the Global Times on Monday. From pre-match until around the 70th minute, the fans were enthusiastic, constantly applauding both teams or chanting Messi’s name together. After the 70th minute, the fans realized that Messi still hadn’t warmed up and started continuously chanting his name and booing. By the end of the match, when there was still no sign that Messi would take the field, the fans became angry, continuously booing and shouting “refund.” Even during the post-match award ceremony and farewell, the fans’ anger remained apparent.

From pre-match to post-match, neither the fans nor the media were informed that Messi would not be playing, but they inferred it from Messi’s actions, as he remained dressed in casual attire, the journalist said. It was only during the post-match press conference that the head coach provided an explanation.

The anger and disappointment caused by the star’s unannounced absence from their field continued to escalate after the match. After the game, many fans refused to leave the stands for a long time and questioned the organizers and Inter Miami. Some Messi billboards located near the stadium and subway stations were attacked. At the same time, multiple Hong Kong government officials also expressed concern about the incident.

“I think at least 80-90 percent of the fans in the stadium came to watch this game because of Messi,” a fan surnamed Wang who traveled from Guangdong to watch the match told the Global Times. “As a fan, what angers me the most is not that Messi couldn’t play, but the feeling of being deceived and disrespected.”

“If the organizer had informed me in advance that Messi would not be able to participate, I would still have gone to watch this game. But this situation was not made public at all, and the fans were deceived into coming to the stadium,” he said. “Especially since Messi had already shown signs of physical discomfort during the open training session the day before.”

Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism of the HKSAR government, said at a press briefing on Monday that Messi was contracted to play at least 45 minutes. They had requested remedial moves, which were ultimately unsuccessful, RTHK reported on Monday.

The Hong Kong government official said that the organizer had confirmed with them that Messi would play in the second half, but he didn’t appear as promised. Toward the end of the match, the organizer confirmed that Messi couldn’t play, said Yeung, according to media reports.

In a statement, the SAR government said that they are “extremely disappointed” that Messi could neither play in the friendly match, nor explain to the fans in person upon request.

Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, a member of the Legislative Council of HKSAR, also expressed great disappointment with the arrangements made by the organizer. He told the Global Times on Monday that Tatler and the Miami international team need to apologize and explain the situation to local fans.

This veteran soccer journalist said that Inter Miami bears a significant responsibility for this incident, as they scheduled their preseason warm-up matches too closely and in distant locations, leading to the problem erupting in Hong Kong.

The team played six matches from January 20 to February 16 in El Salvador, the US, Saudi Arabia, China and Japan, “clearly treating Messi as a cash cow,” he said.

Within 12 days, the 37-year-old veteran played four matches and traveled across half the globe. It is difficult to expect him to maintain high energy levels, he said.

However, Messi’s own reaction has also caused widespread disappointment, especially his refusal to interact or speak with the fans on site when he couldn’t play.

Since China emerged from pandemic restrictions a year ago, high-profile commercial overseas club events have been held in various cities, but also bringing along a series of problems, especially in ticketing. For example, the ticket prices for the Inter Miami-Hong Kong match ranged from HK$880 ($112) to HK$4,880, far exceeding the ticket prices for average soccer matches. The extremely high ticket prices have also made fans more easily angered, demanding that promised rights be guaranteed.

Another international soccer star, Cristiano Ronaldo, was supposed to participate in two warm-up matches against Chinese clubs in Shenzhen on January 24 and 28. However, due to an injury, he was unable to play, and the organizers announced the postponement of the games on January 23, one day before the first game, promising to fully refund the tickets and reimburse the travel expenses of out-of-town fans. Ronaldo also expressed his apologies to the fans.

Global Times

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