Lionel Messi has taken to social media to apologise to “mainland Chinese and Hong Kong football fans” after the Argentine star sat out a much-anticipated friendly fixture in Hong Kong.
Anger over the no-show spread to mainland social media, with some commenters suggesting the footballer, who took to the field in a fixture in Tokyo on Wednesday evening, preferred Japan to China.
Hong Kong’s government expressed its “extreme disappointment” after the star missed Sunday’s game against a local team, while members of the crowd, some of whom paid HK$4,880 (US$624) for tickets, chanted “Refund!” when it became clear that the star would not appear.
Regina Ip, the top adviser to Hong Kong leader John Lee, said the city’s people hated Messi and his team Inter Miami. “Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong,” she wrote on social media site X.
Messi and Inter Miami said the decision not to play was due to injury. His apology on Wednesday was quickly the top trend on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo.
“Hello to all fans and friends in mainland China and Hong Kong,” Messi said in a post published in Chinese and Spanish to his 8mn followers on Weibo.
“I regretted not being able to play in the friendly match in Hong Kong due to a groin injury . . . I hope that one day we will have the opportunity to come back and . . . also look forward to returning to the mainland as soon as possible.”
Messi’s apology followed an online backlash in mainland China. But many commentators were unconvinced, especially after the Argentine footballer took to the pitch in Tokyo in a fixture against Japanese side Vissel Kobe.
“You’re apologising at the same time as taking to the field. You’re acting like a two-faced person. Get out of here,” wrote one commentator, who like many also referred to Messi with an expletive. Other comments under a post in which Messi endorsed Chinese liquor brand Chishuihe called on it to cut ties with the star.
“Why didn’t Messi play in Hong Kong or participate in the handshake with HK chief executive? And why did he smile, run freely and looked fit in Japan?” asked Hu Xijin, a prominent Chinese commentator and former editor of the Global Times Communist party tabloid, on X.
“Many Chinese fans bought high-priced tickets & went to [Hong Kong] specifically for Messi. They deserve a formal explanation & apology,” Hu wrote.
In a statement, Inter Miami said it was sorry Messi did not play, but added that injuries were “unfortunately a part of the beautiful game”.
“Players get injured in football and this is no one’s fault,” it added.
In a statement issued late on Wednesday, the Hong Kong government said fans in the city still had “many questions”. “Messi played with ease in the match in Japan just three days after . . . spending quite a long time on the pitch with some intense movement,” the statement said.
Tatler Asia, the organiser of the Hong Kong fixture, which Inter Miami won 4-1, said on Monday it would withdraw its application for HK$16mn in public money for the event.
Messi came on in the 60th minute of the match against Vissel Kobe, which the Japanese side won on penalties when the game ended 0-0 after normal time. The crowd in Japan’s national stadium, which was roughly half full, was delighted when Messi came on to play, but booed when he did not take a penalty.