Idolized around the world for his enormous football talent, Messi, 36, the best player in the world, became unloved in one place: Hong Kong.
Reason: the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner was absent from a match for Inter Miami, the club he defends and which is on a pre-season tour (passing through Central America and Asia), against a local team on Sunday (4) .
The number 10 remained on the bench the entire time, which caused surprise and dissatisfaction among the 40,000 fans who filled the stadium primarily to see the Argentine in action.
For this, they paid dearly: the ticket price ranged from US$113 to US$624 (R$560 to R$3,090). Inter Miami won 4-1, with those present booing for the US team.
The feeling of these fans, which later infected the media and political and sporting authorities in the region, turned into revolt when the striker was on the field three days later to play for the Florida team against Vissel Kobe, in Japan.
To stay out of the friendly in Hong Kong, which is an autonomous territory in China, Messi claimed a groin injury, proven, according to his team, by tests.
Another star who remained on the bench the entire time in this match was Uruguayan Luis Suárez, Grêmio’s standout in the 2023 Brazilian Championship, also due to an injury.
However, in my opinion, if they were not capable of performing, they should not have been listed by coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino. Supposedly, whoever is on reserve is eligible to play.
The peak of the revulsion came from Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong.
“Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong. His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting,” she wrote on X (formerly Twitter).
The company organizing the friendly in Hong Kong promises to partially reimburse the public who were disappointed by Messi’s non-participation. “Tatler Asia will offer everyone who purchased tickets through official channels a 50% refund.”
Inter Miami regretted the absence of its main players from the match and said it understood the fans’ disappointment.
“We understand that there was disappointment with the absence of Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez and we regret that they were not able to participate,” the club told Reuters. “Unfortunately, injuries are part of the game, and the health of our players must always come first.”
Result of the negative repercussion or not, Messi, after playing on Japanese soil, was upset at not having been able to play in Hong Kong and declared that he hoped to play there in the future, even though he is currently considered a “persona non grata”.
The star’s speech did not alleviate the situation. The Global Times newspaper, linked to the Chinese government, published an editorial entitled “Messi is playing a game that involves integrity”, with harsh attacks on the player.
“After helping the Argentine national team win the World Cup in Qatar, Messi’s reputation has reached a peak, and many fans consider him an inspirational idol.”
“Unlike the friendly in Hong Kong, he came off the bench and played 30 minutes [no Japão], demonstrating good physical condition. Thus, the match in Hong Kong became the only one in the six pre-season friendlies in which he was absent.”
“Fans not only appreciate his football skills, but also scrutinize his character. Professional and contractual spirit are the bottom line for him [Messi], and there are higher requirements, such as social responsibility. If there is any flaw in their integrity, it will result in a huge backlash.”
“There are no eternal superstars, only eternal love for football. Anyone who deviates from the original intention of this sport, regardless of the reason, will not achieve good results.”
As an immediate result of the repercussion and controversy that the case had, Chinese Hangzhou decided to cancel a friendly that Argentina would play in the city in March against Nigeria, possibly with the presence of Messi.
The city’s Sports Department justified the decision by claiming that there were no “ripe conditions” to hold the match, citing “reasons known to everyone”.
The following year, the capital of China did the same, canceling Argentina’s friendly match with Ivory Coast, also in March.
“Beijing does not currently plan to organize any game in which Messi could participate,” the city’s football association said in a statement.
There was, however, someone who argued in defense of Messi and Inter Miami: the American journalist Max Bretos, a commentator on MLS (Major League Soccer) matches, the main league in the USA.
“The public should know these games better [de pré-temporada]. It is not promised that a player will play. So why are fans treated like they deserve something? If you take the risk when purchasing tickets, it is on your own. You have to know that something could go wrong, especially when you’re dealing with someone who’s 36 years old.”
Inter Miami has so far played six preparatory matches for MLS 2024, with one win, two draws and three defeats, and will play one more, against Argentine Newell’s Old Boys, on Thursday (15), before their debut in the championship, on the 21st.