In a much-hyped match, billed by the promoters Tatler Asia as the “most highly anticipated event of the year” and one set to “elevate Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s World City,” soccer great Lionel Messi was due to take to the pitch on 4 February with his team Inter Miami to play an Hong Kong invitational side.
However, a nagging injury kept the Argentine soccer icon on the bench for the 90-minute duration of the game, disappointing almost 40,000 fans who had paid up to HK$4,480 (US$572) for a ticket. Some had travelled from as far as Australia and South Korea for the chance of seeing their idol.
Messi’s inability to take to the pitch – though no fault of his own – was greeted by noisy and unsympathetic booing from the crowd, who chanted “Refund! Refund!” as the final whistle blew. “Greatest let-down of all time” said the headline in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.
The debacle has now sparked questions about much was known about Messi’s condition before the game went ahead and whether problems could have been reasonably foreseen. It also puts the management of large-scale events under the spotlight, as Hong Kong seeks to restore its reputation as a global events hub after the three-year Covid-19 pandemic.
Here’s what you need to know.
Will disappointed Hong Kong fans get a refund on their Lionel Messi tickets?
Yes. After coming under intense pressure, Tatler Asia has said that it will offer ticket holders a 50 percent refund and will release details about the refund process in March.
While many fans in Hong Kong appear to have accepted the offer, the gesture has done little to allay public fury on the Chinese mainland, where many have been incensed by Messi’s appearance in a match against Japanese club Vissel Kobe just days after his Hong Kong no-show.
In retaliation, mainland authorities nixed a friendly match due to be played between Argentina and Nigeria in the city of Hangzhou. The state-backed Global Times also accused Messi of having political motives in sitting out the game in Hong Kong.
Who are Tatler Asia, the Hong Kong promoters of the Lionel Messi game?
Tatler Asia (which has no relation to the iconic British society magazine of the same name) bills itself as “a digital platform and magazine that features luxury lifestyles among elites.” According to its website, it “celebrates the best of Asia” for “high-net-worth luxury consumers” and claims to “unite Asia’s most influential communities and brands around shared passions.”
While the publisher has experience in organising parties, society events and “product activations,” it does not appear to have any track record in putting together major international sporting fixtures.
What were Lionel Messi fans promised in Hong Kong?
Tatler Asia put together “Tatler XFest,” describing it as “more than a football match. It is a celebration of the extraordinary to showcase the best of sport and entertainment.”
The highlight of the two-day event – which included HK$6,880 (US$880) luxury hotel packages and a “football fever” after party in Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong nightlife quarter – was a match featuring “all-star line-up of footballing greats, including record eight-time Ballon d’Or winner and Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain Lionel Messi” on 4 February.
Tickets were offered at prices ranging from $880 to $4,880 (US$112 to US$572). An Inter Miami training session on 3 February was also open to fans willing to fork out up to $780 (US$100) each.
How much public money was involved in staging the Lionel Messi game in Hong Kong?
None. However, the organisers had applied for HK$15 million (US$1.92 million) in matching funds for the match, as well as a HK$1 million (US$128,000) “venue subsidy,” from the Hong Kong government.
At a press conference on Monday night, Tatler Asia said it would withdraw its application for those funds.
Did Tatler Asia actually guarantee that Lionel Messi would participate in Inter Miami’s Hong Kong match?
In a statement cited by the South China Morning Post, Tatler Asia said it reserved “the right to make alterations, additions, withdrawals or substitutes to the event line-up, as well as modify, cancel, terminate or temporarily suspend the event.” Under the reported terms of its agreement with the Hong Kong government, Messi would be exempted from appearing in the match if he was injured.
However, in an Instagram post on 11 January, the promoter said: “Tatler Asia wishes to reassure ticket-holders and football fans in Hong Kong that ALL Inter Miami marquee stars, including Argentina’s World Cup winning captain Lionel Messi will be involved in playing in the Tatler XFEST Hong Kong fixture against the representative Hong Kong team in Hong Kong on February 4th 2024.”
While the language was nuanced – Messi was to be “involved in playing” rather than explicitly playing – it was enough to persuade many fans to part with exorbitant sums for tickets and travel.
When the South China Morning Post contacted Tatler Asia last month to reconfirm Messi’s appearance, the promoter replied “angrily,” the Post said, and pledged that “All Inter Miami marquee players will play in the upcoming fixture. This includes Lionel Messi.”
In promotional material for the match, Messi’s image was featured heavily.
In the run up to the Hong Kong game, were there any clues that Lionel Messi wouldn’t be fit to play?
Yes. Just over two months ago, he sustained a groin injury while playing for Argentina against Brazil and had to be substituted. According to ESPN, he “looked short of fitness.”
While he promised to “get well to start 2024 giving everything,” he remained in obvious discomfort during a game against Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr just three days before his Hong Kong fixture. He played in the game’s final 14 minutes – perhaps to please Saudi Arabian spectators, USA Today speculated – in a move that provoked a social media storm from fans, who accused Inter Miami of showing the injured star “disrespect.”
After the game, USA Today wrote “It’s unclear how much Messi will play as Inter Miami continues their worldwide preseason tour with a match in Hong Kong.”
A day later, Messi arrived in Hong Kong, where his coach, perhaps guardedly, said he would “play as much as possible.” Many fans remained sceptical he would play at all. “Stop using Messi’s name to sell tickets and lie to the fans that he will play, it’s hurting Leo himself, enough is enough, it’s been done too many times,” posted one angry fan on Inter Miami’s Instagram account.
What about on the day?
In a statement, Tatler Asia said it “did not have any information about the non-participation of Messi … prior to kick off.”
An unnamed source told the South China Morning Post that local authorities were informed on the morning of the match that Messi would play as team captain. Messi’s name was reportedly not on the list of players before kick-off, but officials were told by Tatler Asia that Messi would appear in the game’s second half, according to Hong Kong sports minister Kevin Yeung. This was despite the fact that the star was seen sitting in the dugout in ordinary trainers and not football boots like the other players. He was also not wearing his jersey.
Yeung told media at a press conference today that “The organiser only confirmed Messi’s no-show owing to his injury 10 minutes before the game finished.”
What has been the fans’ reaction to Messi’s no-show in Hong Kong?
Fans have been crushed. After the game ended, loud booing echoed around the stadium along with chants of “Refund! Refund!” In a clip widely circulated on social media, one fan echoed the frustration of many by kicking the head off a cardboard cutout of Messi
“Just one or two minutes [of seeing Messi play] would be enough for me,” said one fan, who with his friend had spent HK$9,000 (US$1,150) on tickets and travel from Guangzhou. Others said they had “paid a mortgage just to see Messi play.”
One Hong Kong resident, who had paid HK$2,200 (US$281) for a ticket, told the Post: “I feel like a fool.”
In a glowing write up of the game, published the day after on its website, Tatler Asia appeared to ignore the distress that had been caused and only mentioned in the last sentence that “In the end, neither [Inter Miami’s Uruguayan striker] Luis Suárez nor Messi played in the exhibition match.”
What’s the official reaction to Lionel Messi’s failure to play in Hong Kong?
In a statement after the game, the Hong Kong government “expressed deep disappointment” at the outcome of Tatler XFest and castigated the organiser for “failing to provide a detailed explanation promptly.”
“Many Hong Kong fans looked forward to the match with enthusiasm, and a lot of tourists came to Hong Kong particularly for the match,” officials said, adding that “The way that the organiser and Inter Miami CF handled the situation could not meet the expectations of the fans who showed strong support to Messi, especially those visitors who came all the way here for the match.
Meanwhile Kenneth Fok, a Hong Kong legislator representing the city’s sports sector, said Tatler Asia and Inter Miami “owed an apology and explanation to the Hong Kong people.”
Another lawmaker, Michael Tien, said the way the match was handled was “outrageous” and tarnished Hong Kong’s reputation as an events hub.
Officials are also said to be upset at Inter Miami’s apparent reluctance to make promotional appearances in Hong Kong, despite what Fok called the “exorbitant fees” paid to the team. The players cancelled a tour of Kai Tak Sports Park, scheduled for this morning, the Post reported. Messi also reportedly refused requests to pose for informal photos with Hong Kong players.
Lawmaker Johnny Ng said, “The government is also a victim as we hoped to attract more tourists with these events.” He pointed out that when renowned Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo did not play in Shenzhen for health reasons last month, the organiser refunded fans their ticket, hotel and air fees.
— Last updated 15 February