Lionel Messi’s three days of adulation in Hong Kong ended in heartbreak for his fans as the Argentine did not take to the field in Inter Miami’s 4-1 win against a local League XI in a friendly played in front of a sellout crowd.
Spectators chanted “refund” and the Hong Kong government said match organisers Tatler Asia may face a reduction in funding after Messi stayed on the bench during the match.
The Major Sports Events Committee (MSEC) had granted 15 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.92 million) for the event along with a one million Hong Kong dollar grant for the venue, the government said in a statement.
The organisers said they expected Messi and his former Barcelona team mate, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, to play and were extremely disappointed that they did feature in the match.
Miami head coach Gerardo Martino said playing Messi and Suarez could have posed a risk of aggravating their injuries.
Some 40,000 fans had flocked to Hong Kong Stadium for Saturday’s training session, chanting “Messi! Messi! Messi!” and holding aloft copies of his number 10 jersey as he and club co-owner David Beckham interacted with local children.
The World Cup winner had been mobbed by adoring fans decked out in Argentina’s blue and white or Miami’s pink since landing from Saudi Arabia on Friday, with hundreds waiting outside the team hotel to try and get a glimpse of the 36-year-old.
Hong Kongers clamoured for match tickets, costing between 880 and 4,880 Hong Kong dollars, when they went on sale in December, snapping them up within an hour amid excitement over Messi playing his first match in the territory since 2014.
The eight-time Ballon d’Or winner can expect similar scenes in Tokyo when Miami continue their pre-season tour with a friendly against J-League champions Vissel Kobe on Wednesday.
They kick off their Major League Soccer campaign versus Real Salt Lake on Feb. 21.