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China says Messi’s absence in Hong Kong match goes beyond ‘realm of sports’ as fury builds

HONG KONG — Chinese state media, Hong Kong politicians and some fans swiftly condemned Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi’s participation in a match in Japan on Wednesday after staying on the bench just days earlier in a highly anticipated game in Hong Kong.

Many in the financial hub were dismayed on Sunday when the 36-year-old did not come onto the field during a much hyped Inter Miami match in front of a sell-out crowd, with fans demanding answers and a refund.

Miami head coach Gerardo Martino said Messi was deemed unfit to play in Sunday’s friendly in Hong Kong, but he came on as a 60th-minute substitute against Vissel Kobe on Wednesday.

China’s state-controlled Global Times said Messi’s absence posed many questions on the differential treatment for Hong Kong.

“The match in Hong Kong became the only one in Messi’s six pre-season friendly matches on this trip where he was absent. The situation … has magnified these doubts and suspicions on the integrity of Inter Miami and Messi himself.”

Some mainland fans traveled 12 hours from Xinjiang to Hong Kong to see Messi, the Global Times wrote, with the disappointment of the government and fans “entirely understandable. The impact of this incident has far exceeded the realm of sports.”

Messi apologized to his Chinese fans on Weibo, a Chinese platform similar to X, just ahead of the game on Wednesday, saying it was a real shame he was not able to play in Hong Kong due to an injury.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I always want to play … especially in these games where we travel so far and people are excited to see our games. Hopefully we can come back and play a game in Hong Kong,” he wrote in Chinese and Spanish.

The match in Hong Kong drew 40,000 fans, with spectators paying up to nearly $5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($640) per ticket. In Tokyo, entire blocks of seating at the Japan National Stadium remained unoccupied, with just 28,614 tickets sold.

Hong Kong’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau said in a statement that, like the fans, it was very disappointed that Messi could not play in Hong Kong due to injury.

“However three days later, Messi was able to play actively and freely in Japan … the government hopes the organizers and teams can provide reasonable explanations.”

Sports lawmaker Kenneth Fok said the incident “sprinkled salt wounds” on Hong Kong fans, while senior government adviser Regina Ip wrote on X that “Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter-Miami and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong.”

Scott Wong, a 26-year-old cadet pilot, said that if Messi comes back to play in Hong Kong he would think twice before getting tickets, in case he is injured again. “All the backlash Inter Miami got, plus Messi, I think he feels like he needs to make up for it. That’s why he promised to come back and play the game again.”

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