Inter Miami’s Messi hopes to play in Tokyo after Hong Kong PR disaster

Argentinian superstar says he feels ‘much better’ after injury prevented him from playing in previous Inter Miami match – to the disappointment of Hong Kong fans.

Lionel Messi speaks to reporters in Tokyo, Japan [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]Published On 6 Feb 20246 Feb 2024

Lionel Messi says he hopes to play Inter Miami’s final game of a preseason tour of Asia after his no-show in the team’s previous match in Hong Kong at the weekend disappointed a legion of football fans.

The Argentinian’s benching for the highly anticipated match in front of a sellout crowd at Hong Kong Stadium has turned into a public relations debacle for his Major League Soccer side and organisers of the local event.

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Speaking to media for the first time since the team and their co-owner David Beckham were booed off the field, Messi said on Tuesday it was “disappointing” that he was unable to play, citing swelling in his adductor muscle.

“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,” the 36-year-old told a news conference at a Tokyo hotel.

“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.”

The Inter Miami skipper, who led Argentina to a World Cup triumph in 2022, was coy about whether he would play in Wednesday’s friendly against J-League champions Vissel Kobe.

“For tomorrow, I don’t know, we’ll need to see how it goes in training today,” he added. “We still don’t know if I would be able to or not, but I feel much better than I did a few days ago and really want to be able to play.”

Messi spoke at the news conference alone after appearances by Beckham, coach Tata Martino and teammates Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez were cancelled at the last minute.

Some 40,000 fans paid up to $600 to see Messi in action in Hong Kong. But when it became clear he was not coming on, boos started to ring around the stadium.

“How do you bring Messi and Suarez to Hong Kong and not put them on?” asked a fan. “It’s disappointing. Shame on them. Shame on the organisation, they should refund people here.”

Organiser Tatler Asia said it found out only during the game that Messi would not play and had withdrawn its application for a $2m government grant for staging the event.

“Tatler Asia had the best intention to make the event a great success for Hong Kong by bringing the best players in the world and fully understand and share the disappointment of local and overseas fans and stakeholders,” Michel Lamuniere, chairman and CEO, told a news conference.

Hong Kong Sports Minister Kevin Yeung said the government did everything it could to rectify the situation.

“We immediately requested them to explore other remedies, such as Messi appearing in the field to interact with his fans and receiving the trophy. Unfortunately, as you all see, this did not work out.”

Unlike in Hong Kong, scores of tickets were still available a day before the Tokyo match, after going on sale in late December.

Many Japanese fans, though, were content simply to catch a glimpse of the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner in the flesh, braving the chill to watch him at a training session just outside the Japanese capital for special ticket-holders.

“I became a fan two years ago when my son started playing soccer,” said Miku Tomishima, 32, who said she was taking her son to the match as a gift for his 10th birthday this week.

Another mother-son pair travelled nearly 500km (310 miles) from Shiga, in western Japan, to check seeing Messi off their bucket list.

“When we found out they were coming, we decided right then and there that we had to go, even if he had to skip school,” said Yukie Uno, standing next to her son, Tairi.

“We weren’t able to do that when [Messi’s former club] Paris Saint-Germain came to Japan, and that was really disappointing. We thought, maybe this could be the last opportunity so we said, we have to see him.”

The match, at the Japan National Stadium, kicks off at 7pm (10:00 GMT) on Wednesday.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies