Messi sits out Hong Kong friendly; government may cut support funding

HONG KONG, CHINA – FEBRUARY 04: Fans react after not seeing Inter Miami’s Argentine forward Lionel Messi play during the friendly match between Hong Kong Team and Inter Miami CF at Hong Kong Stadium on February 4, 2024 in Hong Kong, China. 

China News Service | China News Service | Getty Images

The Hong Kong government said it may cut funding for a friendly match after soccer legend Lionel Messi did not take the pitch on Sunday.

U.S. Major League Soccer team Inter Miami defeated a select Hong Kong XI 4-1 in a friendly match, but did so without the help of the Argentine superstar who remained on the bench for the whole 90 minutes.

The Miami Herald reported that Messi had an MRI last week ahead of a friendly match in Saudi Arabia. While he was reportedly expected to be left off the roster, he appeared at the 83rd minute when the Florida team was already down 0-6.

The South China Morning Post called Sunday’s match the “greatest let-down of all time,” reporting that fans were booing and calling for refunds at the final whistle.

Inter Miami did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

The friendly match had been awarded “M” Mark status which is granted to major sporting events held in the city. The designation allows organizers to tap on selected support measures from the city’s government. Hong Kong said it had awarded the event a matching grant of 15 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.9 million) and a venue grant of HK$1 million.

David Beckham's Inter Miami to play Hong Kong team in February

The city’s government issued a statement Sunday expressing “deep disappointment” over Messi not playing and for the organizer failing to provide a detailed explanation promptly.

“Many Hong Kong fans looked forward to the match with enthusiasm, and a lot of tourists came to Hong Kong particularly for the match. The Government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed that Messi could neither play in the friendly match, nor explain to the fans in person upon request,” the statement said, adding that “the way that the organizer and Inter Miami CF handled the situation could not meet the expectations of the fans.”

Event organizer Tatler Asia featured Messi and teammate Luis Suárez on promotion materials for the match. Suárez also did not play during the match. The organizer also expressed its “extreme disappointment” in a statement.

“Despite some news reports, Tatler did not have any information about the non-participation of Messi or Suárez prior to kick off. Messi and Suárez were deemed unfit to play by their team’s medical department, to everyone’s, including ours, disappointment,” it said in an Instagram post.

The Hong Kong government said it would take steps to hold the organizer responsible according to terms of the deal, including a possible reduction in funding.

Ticket prices for the match cost between HK$880 to HK$4,880, according to a CNBC check on Klook, the event’s ticketing agent. SCMP reported that some fans spent “thousands” on travel and resale tickets.

Inter Miami is scheduled to play a friendly against Japanese J-League side Vissel Kobe in Tokyo on Feb. 7, with adult ticket prices ranging from 10,000 yen ($67.39) to an eye-watering 3 million yen ($20,214.45).

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