What started with overwhelming cheers and rapture ended in boos and calls for refunds in the sold-out, 40,000-seat Hong Kong Stadium.
Inter Miami — out to prove a point having gone winless during a worldwide pre-season tour — comfortably defeated a Hong Kong XI 4-1 in an event branded as Tatler XFEST Hong Kong.
But even in the lead-up to and during the game, there was the sense that the scoreline did not matter to fans; more important was witnessing Messi, a World Cup champion and eight-time Ballon d’Or winner, grace the field.
Even Hong Kong’s government has shared its dismay at the 36-year-old not featuring in the match.
“Messi was not able to play in the friendly game today and the government and fans are equally disappointed at the arrangements by the event organiser,” it said in a statement on Sunday. “The event organiser owes fans an explanation.”
New signing Luis Suárez also did not feature despite attending the pre-match press conference, while other marquee players Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets were only substituted on in the second half.
The additional trophy presentation, fireworks and speech by club co-owner David Beckham were engulfed in whistles and jeers in a rather awkward end to the trip. The boos continued when the big-screen cameras panned to Messi.
The shift in mood had occurred towards the final 20 minutes of the game — the clamors of “We want Messi” turned into “Where is Messi?”, while boos rang out each time a player other than Messi was substituted onto the pitch.
Shouts of “refund, refund, refund” in both English and Cantonese could also be heard in injury time. According to Reuters, tickets went on sale in December and cost between 880 and 4,880 Hong Kong dollars (about $113 and $624).
CNN has contacted event organizer Tatler for comment.
In a statement on Sunday, Tatler XFEST expressed “extreme disappointment” that Messi and Suárez did not play in Hong Kong and said that it “did not have any information about the non-participation” of the players prior to kick-off.
Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino explained that the decision not to field Messi was made on very late notice and under the recommendation of the club’s medical staff.
“We understand the reception from the fans towards the absence of Leo and Luis,” Martino said apologetically, also thanking Hong Kong for the “care” they had received throughout the weekend.
“This was a decision made together with our medical team. We checked their physical wellbeing and they risked sustaining an injury if they went onto the pitch so they couldn’t play.
“We understand the disappointment from the fans and we ask for their forgiveness. We wish we could have played them for even a short while, but the risk was too big.”
Martino was pressed on the type of injury Messi had sustaine