Chinese state media, Hong Kong politicians and fans have cried foul after Lionel Messi played in a match in Japan, just days after he stayed on the bench in a highly anticipated match in Hong Kong.
Many in Hong Kong were dismayed on Sunday when the 36-year-old Argentinian player did not come on to the field during a much-hyped Inter Miami fixture to a sell-out crowd with fans demanding answers and a refund.
Miami head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said Messi was deemed unfit to play in Sunday’s match in the Hong Kong friendly.
Hong Kong’s government said in a statement on Sunday: “Regarding Messi not playing the match today, the government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organisers’ arrangement. The organisers owe all football fans an explanation.”
China’s state-controlled Global Times media organisation said Messi’s subsequent appearance on the field in Japan posed many questions about the differential treatment given to Hong Kong.
In an op-ed, the Times wrote: “The match in Hong Kong became the only one in Messi’s six pre-season friendly matches on this trip where he was absent. The situation … has magnified these doubts and suspicions on the integrity of Inter Miami and Messi himself.”
Some mainland fans travelled 12 hours from Xinjiang to Hong Kong to see Messi, the Global Times wrote, with the disappointment of the government and fans “entirely understandable. The impact of this incident has far exceeded the realm of sports.”
The saga has dominated Chinese social media, with related conversations taking up half of the top 10 trending topics on Weibo in recent days with hundreds of millions of daily engagements, and several of the top search terms, although many commenters were making light of the furore.
Just ahead of the Japan game on Wednesday, Messi apologised to his Chinese fans on Weibo, saying it was a real shame he was not able to play in Hong Kong due to an injury.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I always want to play … especially in these games where we travel so far and people are excited to see our games. Hopefully we can come back and play a game in Hong Kong,” he wrote in Chinese and Spanish.
The match in Hong Kong drew 40,000 fans, with some spectators paying nearly HK$5,000 ($640) a ticket.
According to the Global Times, the Consumer Council of Hong Kong said it had received 547 complaints related to Messi’s absence, involving a total amount of HK$3.64 million (US$465,466).
In Tokyo, entire blocks of seating at the Japan National Stadium remained unoccupied, with just 28,614 tickets sold.
Hong Kong’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau said in a statement that, like the fans, it was very disappointed that Messi could not play in Hong Kong due to injury.
“However three days later, Messi was able to play actively and freely in Japan … the government hopes the organisers and teams can provide reasonable explanations.”
Hong Kong lawmaker Kenneth Fok said the incident “sprinkled salt” on the wounds of Hong Kong fans, while senior government adviser Regina Ip wrote on X that “Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter Miami and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculate snub to Hong Kong.”