The Hong Kong government demanded answers from Inter Miami CF and Lionel Messi on Wednesday after the Argentine played in a friendly in Japan just three days after missing a similar exhibition match in its country.
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.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
“However three days later, Messi was able to play actively and freely in Japan,” the statement read. “The government hopes the organisers and teams can provide reasonable explanations.”
Many in the financial hub were dismayed on Sunday when the 36-year-old did not come onto the field during a much hyped Inter Miami match 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 after saying before the game that it was likely he would play. The World Cup winner came on as a 60th minute substitute on Wednesday in Miami’s shootout loss to Japanese side Vissel Kobe.
“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,” Messi said on Tuesday before the game in Japan.
The match in Hong Kong drew 40,000 fans, with spectators paying up to nearly HK$5,000 ($640) per ticket. In Tokyo, entire blocks of seating at the Japan National Stadium remained unoccupied, with just 28,614 tickets sold.
China’s state-controlled Global Times said Messi’s absence posed many questions on the differential treatment for Hong Kong.
“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 Global Times said in a statement. “The situation … has magnified these doubts and suspicions on the integrity of Inter Miami and Messi himself.”
Some mainland fans traveled 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.”
Regina Ip, a senior Hong Kong government advisor 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.”
Miami plays the last of its seven-game preseason tour on Feb. 15, against Messi’s youth club Newell’s Old Boys before beginning MLS regular-season play at home against Real Salt Lake on Feb. 21.
Information from Reuters was used in this story.