Lionel Messi‘s absence from the exhibition match featuring Inter Miami in Hong Kong has ignited a storm of controversy, prompting far-fetching accusations of deliberate sabotage and political motives. The renowned Argentine footballer is facing a wave of backlash from disappointed fans after failing to take the field in a friendly match, citing injury.
Messi’s absence had left the in-stadia spectators furious last week, with chants of “Refund!” echoing through the stadium and gestures of disapproval directed at team co-owner David Beckham.
Adding fuel to the fire, Messi’s subsequent appearance in a friendly match in Japan merely days later led to accusations of intentional snubbing, triggering widespread outrage. The Argentine’s appearance against Vissel Kobe sparked allegations that Messi had deliberately singled out China, prompting calls for accountability and explanations from event organizers.
In response to the mounting outcry, Tatler Asia, the organizers of the event, issued a public apology and offered a partial refund to disgruntled ticket holders. However, the gesture failed to quell the rising anger and suspicions, as China’s national tabloid Global Times floated theories of sinister foreign interference aimed at tarnishing Hong Kong’s reputation.
“One theory is that (Messi’s) actions have political motives, as Hong Kong intends to boost [the] economy through the event and external forces deliberately wanted to embarrass Hong Kong through this incident,” it said.
“Judging from the development of the situation, the possibility of this speculation cannot be ruled out.”
With tensions running high, the Hong Kong government demanded answers from event organizers, expressing dismay over the perceived betrayal of public trust and the failure to deliver on promises of Messi’s participation.
The Argentine player has said it was “bad luck” that he couldn’t play and that he hopes to return to the city. But top government advisor Regina Ip minced no words in expressing her outrage, condemning Messi’s actions as a deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter-Miami, and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong,” Ip said on social media platform X, deploying a phrase commonly used by the city’s officials to allege sinister foreign interference.
“His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting,” she said.
In mainland China, Messi’s non-appearance has trended on the X-like Weibo platform all week. A post by the footballer expressing regret for not being able to play was inundated with mocking comments and memes.
Some featured Messi as an Imperial Japanese soldier — a reference to his alleged preference for the country over China.
Inter Miami, meanwhile, issued a formal apology to Hong Kong fans on Thursday for Messi’s absence in the exhibition match.
“Despite our best intentions, we understand there has been disappointment over the absence of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in Sunday’s match and we are sorry that the two players could not participate,” Miami said in a statement sent to Reuters.
“We also recognize that the late decision caused frustration among our Hong Kong supporters and the event promoter, Tatler Asia. We do feel it necessary to express that injuries are unfortunately a part of the beautiful game, and our player’s health must always come first.”
Messi last played in mainland China in June, when he led Argentina in a friendly match against Australia in Beijing. His national team is scheduled to return to China for exhibition games against Nigeria and Ivory Coast in March, according to the Argentine Football Association.