HONG KONG (AP) — An Argentina soccer friendly in China next month was canceled Friday because Lionel Messi was unable to play in the club’s exhibition match in Hong Kong.
World champion Argentina, captained by Messi, last month scheduled a tour of China during the March 18-26 international break. Matches were scheduled against Nigeria in Hangzhou and Ivory Coast in Beijing. Both opponents will coincidentally meet in the final of the African Cup of Nations this weekend.
But Messi, on tour with his club Inter Miami, outraged Hong Kong fans when he did not play against a local team last Sunday and remained on the bench. Messi said that he had a groin injury. But his excuse was unsuccessful in Hong Kong after he played for 30 minutes on Wednesday in Tokyo against Vissel Kobe.
On Friday, the Hangzhou sports office canceled the friendly between Argentina and Nigeria.
“For reasons known to all, we have learned from the supervisory authorities that the conditions for the match to take place are immature. “It has now been decided that the match will be cancelled,” the Hangzhou Sports Bureau announced on its official social media account.
An official from the Argentine Soccer Association told the Associated Press that it knew the match was suspended and that it was looking for another venue to play Nigeria. The official spoke on condition of anonymity and said: “It is a sensitive matter.”
Ivory Coast’s friendly with Argentina in Beijing went ahead as planned, Ivory Coast team spokeswoman Anne-Marie N’Guessan told the AP on Friday.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong organizers of the Inter Miami-friendly club said they will offer a 50% refund following days of backlash against Messi from angry fans and the city government.
Many social media users in mainland China expressed disappointment at Messi’s absence, and the Chinese state newspaper, Global Times, published an editorial saying that the impact of the controversy surrounding the soccer superstar “has far exceeded the field of sports. ”
In an Instagram post on Friday, local organizer Tatler Asia apologized to those disappointed by Messi’s absence and said he was upset by “the apparent lack of respect shown to the crowd.”
He reiterated that he pleaded with Inter Miami management to urge Messi to explain to viewers after learning that Messi, who was required to play for 45 minutes unless injured according to his contract, would not play.
“It did not. The fact that Messi… played in Japan on February 7 feels like another slap in the face,” he said.
Organizers said they were in talks with the city government about how to resolve the issue and that details of the refund agreement would be announced in mid-March.
“We will not shirk our responsibility as organizers and that is why Tatler Asia will offer all those who purchased match day tickets through official channels a 50% refund,” he said.
Tickets for the match cost up to HK$4,880 ($624) each. In its statement, Tatler Asia said it would refund HK$56 million ($7.2 million) in total, resulting in a loss of HK$43 million ($5.5 million). Before the refund, his net income was 13 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.7 million), the organizer said.
Tatler Asia already announced on Monday that it would withdraw a request for funding from the city government to organize the match.
Responding to the announcement, the Hong Kong government welcomed the agreement in a statement, calling it a responsible move. But he said Hong Kong society still has many questions about the incident, especially after watching Messi play in Japan, and he hoped Inter Miami could provide a reasonable explanation to the public.
Inter Miami did not immediately respond to AP’s request for comment.
After the public relations disaster broke out on Sunday, Messi addressed the widespread disappointment by explaining why he did not play at a press conference in Tokyo.
He also said it was unfortunate that he couldn’t 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 at Wednesday’s Tokyo match intensified criticism of his absence beyond Hong Kong, where the government sought to use Sunday’s match to boost the city’s image as a mega-events hub.
On Wednesday, the Global Times stated in an editorial that Messi and Inter Miami’s explanations were not convincing and pointed to some speculation about the moves.
“One theory is that their actions are politically motivated, as Hong Kong aims to boost the economy through the event and external forces deliberately wanted to embarrass Hong Kong with this incident,” he said. “Judging by the evolution of the situation, the possibility of such speculation cannot be ruled out.”
Pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong also weighed in. Regina Ip, a senior member of the Executive Council, Hong Kong 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 concluded Inter Miami’s world promotional tour. Inter have won just one of their six matches in Central and North America, Saudi Arabia and Asia. The tour concludes on February 16 in Florida against Newell’s Old Boys, Messi’s boyhood club in Rosario, Argentina. Many expect him to end his career there.
AP journalists Debora Rey in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Ciarán Fahey in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, contributed.
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