By Kanis Leung, The Associated Press on February 5, 2024.
HONG KONG (AP) – The organizer of a soccer match featuring Inter Miami in Hong Kong was dealing with backlash from both angry fans and the government after widespread disappointment that Lionel Messi didn’t play in the game.
The much-hyped exhibition match on Sunday ended with fans booing Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham and demanding refunds as Messi stayed on the bench for the full 90 minutes in the game against a local team due to a hamstring strain.
Organizers said Monday they had only been informed during halftime that Lionel Messi would not be playing and that they would withdraw an application for funding from the city government for staging the match.
The fans’ reaction was a setback for Hong Kong officials who sought to boost the city’s image as a hub for mega events amid a slow economic recovery and Beijing’s crackdown on dissidents.
Michel LamuniÃ¨re, chairman of organizer Tatler Asia, said in a news conference on Monday evening that its contract with Inter Miami required Messi and some other football stars in the team to play unless they were injured.
LamuniÃ¨re said Messi was named as a substitute in the list of footballers available to come off the bench, but the club’s management later told the organizer that Messi was not fit to play due to an injury. Former Barcelona striker Luis Suarez also did not play in the game.
LamuniÃ¨re said his team had spent the second half of the match urging the club’s leadership to ask Messi to address the fans but “to no avail.”
“Tatler Asia deeply regrets the disappointing ending to what was an exciting occasion,” he said.
LamuniÃ¨re did not apologize for the debacle or mention any refund arrangements in the brief news conference, which had no question-and-answer session for reporters.
Tickets for the game cost up to 4,880 Hong Kong dollars ($624) each, and the government had previously approved an application from the organizers for 16 million Hong Kong dollars ($2 million) in funding. That money had yet to be paid out and the request will now be withdrawn.
In a press briefing earlier Monday, Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin Yeung said the government’s funding agreement with Tatler Asia required Messi to play for at least 45 minutes, unless there were safety or health concerns.
When the government noticed the second half did not feature Messi, it tried to follow up with the organizer but was told Messi could not play due to an injury, Yeung said.
“We therefore immediately request them to explore other remedies such as Messi appearing in the field to interact with his fans and receiving the trophy. Unfortunately, as you all see, these did not work out,” he said.
Inter Miami will conclude its Asian tour in Japan on Wednesday when it plays Vissel Kobe.
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer