Chinese sporting authorities have cancelled next month's friendly international between Argentina and Nigeria amid a growing backlash against Lionel Messi's failure to play in an Inter Miami match in Hong Kong last week.
Argentina were scheduled to play Nigeria in the Chinese city of Hangzhou next month before facing the Ivory Coast in Beijing, but Messi's failure to take the field for Inter Miami in Hong Kong on Sunday caused widespread anger among fans.
The organiser of the Hong Kong match said they would give fans a 50% refund for tickets after the Argentine did not take the field during their 4-1 win against Hong Kong All-Stars due to injury, but played in Japan days later.
The backlash grew on Friday, with Hangzhou sports authorities saying that Argentina's friendly against Nigeria would no longer take place.
'As a commercial event, a company and the Argentinian soccer team negotiated that the team would play a friendly match in March this year in the city of Hangzhou,' the Hangzhou authorities said in a statement.
Messi and his team-mates had touched down in Hong Kong last Friday after being thumped 6-0 by Cristiano Ronaldo's Al-Nassr in Riyadh the day before. The Portuguese superstar did not make an appearance, while Messi came on in the 83rd minute.
Reports claimed that the Argentina World Cup winner had been carrying a hamstring injury upon the team's arrival. But according to Hong Kong's sports minister, Messi had been contracted to play for at least 45 minutes.
Two days later, Inter Miami defeated Hong Kong All-Stars 4-1 at the Hong Kong stadium, but the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner, despite being named on the bench, was not brought on by manager Gerardo Martino, angering fans inside the ground.
The MLS side's owner, David Beckham, had greeted the crowd after the game to thank them for an 'incredible welcome', but he was met by boos from the 40,000 fans inside the stadium, with some having paid around £365 (USD$460) to catch a glimpse of Messi.
Reports initially claimed that fans would not be reimbursed should Messi not feature during the game, with the 36-year-old having been utilised heavily in the pre-match advertising. One fan had even flown from Melbourne to watch the superstar play.
Some even took their anger out on advertising hoardings around the stadium, with a video on X (formerly Twitter) showing one fan kicking a cardboard stand of Messi and several of his team-mates, taking the Argentine's head off.
The Hong Kong government were equally furious about the situation, releasing a statement claiming that it could withdraw £1.6million (USD$2m) of funding to the organisers that helped bring Inter Miami to the city.
'Regarding Messi not playing the match day, the Government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organiser's arrangement,' the statement read.
'The organiser owes all football fans an explanation. The Major Sports Events Committee will take follow-up action with the organiser according to the terms and conditions, which includes reducing the amount of funding as a result of Messi not playing the match.'
Miami's coach, Martino, stated that the club's medical team had taken the decision not to field Messi during the game.
'We understand the disappointment of the fans for the absence of Leo (Messi),' he told reporters.
'We understand a lot of fans are very disappointed and we ask for their forgiveness.
'We wish we could have sent Leo on for at least a while but the risk was too big.'
Messi had also stated that he was 'a little tired' and 'wanted to return home' while revealing he could not feature during the game because his injury had left him in 'some discomfort'.
'In Hong Kong, we had an open-door training session and I went out because there was such a big crowd there and there was a clinic with the kids, and I wanted to be there and participate.
'But the truth is that the discomfort was still there and it was very difficult for me to play.
'I can understand that people were looking forward to it and I hope that there will be another opportunity for me to play in Hong Kong.'
Miami subsequently travelled to Japan to take on Vissel Kobe on Wednesday, with Messi coming on in the 60th minute to see his side lose 1-0 on penalties. The Argentine was also seen laughing after his team-mate Robert Taylor was denied from the penalty spot twice during the pre-season match.
He had also apologised to fans on Weibo, a platform similar to X, ahead of their match against Kobe.
He wrote: '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,' he wrote in Chinese and Spanish.
'Hopefully we can come back and play a game in Hong Kong.
Despite that, China's state-controlled Global Times subsequently launched a fresh attack on Messi claiming his absence posed questions on the differential treatment for Hong Kong. They accused the Argentine striker of 'political motives' with the aim of 'embarrassing' Hong Kong after playing for Inter in Japan.
'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.'
Meanwhile, one of the games' organisers, Tatler Asia, claimed they were left 'heartbroken' and accused Messi and Inter Miami of a 'lack of respect'.
'An event that we had hoped to be the pride of the city, and which we have worked very hard on for months, has become the source of great heartbreak,' the Tatler Asia said.
'We put our blood and sweat into bringing a world-class football match to Hong Kong and we were let down along with all of you.
'Inter Miami had committed under contract that all of their marquee players — Messi, Alba, Busquets and Suarez — would be required to play for 45 minutes unless injured. But as it turned out, we were informed that Messi and Suarez could not play due to injury.
'Injuries are part of the game. But what upsets us was the seeming lack of respect shown to the crowd.
'When we learned that Messi would not be playing, we pleaded with Inter Miami CF ownership and management to urge him to stand up, engage with the spectators and explain why he couldn't play.
'He didn't. The fact that Messi and Suarez played in Japan on February 7th feels like another slap in the face.
'Our aspiration was to create an iconic moment in support of the government's efforts to remind the world how relevant and exciting Hong Kong is. That dream is broken today for us and all those who bought tickets to see Messi on the pitch.'
Ed Carruthers, Mail Online
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