World Cup champion Argentina, captained by Messi, last month scheduled a tour of China during the international break March 18-26. Games were lined up against Nigeria in Hangzhou and Ivory Coast in Beijing. Both opponents are coincidentally meeting in the Africa Cup of Nations final this weekend.
But Messi, on tour with Inter Miami, outraged fans in Hong Kong when he didn’t play against a local selection Sunday and remained on the bench. Messi said he had a groin injury. But his excuse didn’t wash in Hong Kong after he played for 30 minutes Wednesday in Tokyo against Vissel Kobe.
On Friday, the sports bureau in Hangzhou canceled the Argentina-Nigeria friendly.
“Because of the reasons known to all, we’ve learned from supervising authorities that the conditions are immature for the match to go forward. Now it’s been decided that the match will be canceled,” the Hangzhou Sports Bureau announced on its official social media account.
An Argentine Football Association official told the Association Press it was aware the match was suspended and was looking for another venue to play Nigeria. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying, “It’s a sensitive matter.”
Ivory Coast’s friendly with Argentina in Beijing was going ahead as planned, Ivory Coast team spokesperson Anne-Marie N’Guessan told the AP on Friday.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong organizers of the club friendly with Inter Miami said they will offer a 50% refund following days of backlash from angry fans and the city government.
Many social media users in mainland China expressed their disappointment over Messi’s no-show, with China’s state-run newspaper, the Global Times, publishing an editorial that said the impact of the controversy surrounding the soccer superstar “has far exceeded the realm of sports.”
In an Instagram post on Friday, local organizer Tatler Asia apologized to those who were disappointed by Messi’s absence and said it was upset by “the seeming lack of respect shown to the crowd.”
It reiterated that it pleaded with Inter Miami management to urge Messi to explain the situation to the spectators after it learned Messi, who was required to play for 45 minutes unless injured under their contract, would not be playing.
“He didn’t. The fact that Messi … played in Japan on February 7th feels like another slap in the face,” it said.
The organizers said they were in talks with the city government on how to resolve the issue and that details of the refund arrangement would be announced by mid-March.
Tickets for the game cost up to 4,880 Hong Kong dollars ($624) each. In its statement, Tatler Asia said it would refund 56 million Hong Kong dollars ($7.2 million) in total, resulting in a loss of 43 million Hong Kong dollars ($5.5 million). Before the refund, its net income stood at 13 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.7 million), the organizer said.
Tatler Asia on Monday already said it would withdraw an application for funding from the city government for staging the match.
In response to the announcement, the Hong Kong government welcomed the arrangement in a statement, calling it as a responsible move. But it said Hong Kong society still has many questions over the incident, especially after seeing Messi play in Japan, and hoped Inter Miami can provide a reasonable explanation to the public.
Inter Miami apologized in a statement to Reuters on Thursday.
“Despite our best intentions, we understand there has been disappointment over the absence of Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez in Sunday’s match and we are sorry that the two players could not participate,” the MLS club said.
“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.”
After the PR disaster erupted Sunday, Messi addressed the widespread disappointment by explaining why he did not play in a news conference in Tokyo.
He also said it was regrettable that he could not play in Hong Kong on Chinese social media platform Weibo. He said in the post that he hoped to return to Hong Kong to play for his fans and go to mainland China to share the joy of football.
But his appearance in the Tokyo game on Wednesday intensified the criticism over his absence beyond Hong Kong, where the government sought to use the Sunday game to boost the city’s image as a hub for mega events.
On Wednesday, the Global Times said in its editorial that the explanations from Messi and Inter Miami were not convincing and pointed to speculations about the moves.
“One theory is that their actions have political motives, as Hong Kong intends to boost 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.”
Pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong also weighed in. Regina Ip, a leading member of the Executive Council, Hong Kong’s Cabinet, wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong. His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting.”
The match in Japan wrapped up Inter Miami’s global promotional tour. Miami has won only one of its six games in Central and North America, Saudi Arabia and Asia. The tour wraps up on Feb. 16 in Florida against Newell’s Old Boys, Messi’s boyhood club from Rosario, Argentina.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.