China Cancels Second Friendly with Argentina after Lionel Messi No-Show (Update 1)

AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko
Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi, right, battles for the ball against Vissel Kobe’s Nanasei Iino during the friendly soccer match between Vissel Kobe and Inter Miami CF at the National Stadium, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, in Tokyo, Japan.

Argentina’s upcoming friendly in China has been canceled by local authorities, the second Argentine match in China to be called off this week amid controversy over star Lionel Messi’s absence from a Hong Kong match last Sunday.

Beijing’s football association announced Saturday it will not organize a friendly scheduled for March between Argentina and the Ivory Coast.

“Beijing does not plan, for the moment, to organize the match in which Lionel Messi was to participate,” the Beijing Football Association said Saturday in a statement to local media.

The cancellation comes a day after a friendly between Argentina and Nigeria, also planned for March, was nixed by the Hangzhou Sports Bureau.

During a long 2024 preseason road trip with Inter Miami that included stops in El Salvador and Saudi Arabia, Messi missed last Sunday’s match in Hong Kong because of an injury. The team faced an angry backlash from fans, some of whom demanded refunds for their tickets because the Argentinian did not play.

Making matters worse, the coach of Inter Miami, Gerardo Martino, had said his 36-year-old star “likely” would play in Hong Kong.

A large advertising campaign was built around the match, whose organizer is now said to be withdrawing $2 million in government grants for the event.

“The (Hong Kong) government, as well as football fans, are extremely disappointed that Messi could neither play in the friendly match, nor explain to the fans in person upon request,” Hong Kong officials said in a statement last Sunday.

“The way that the organizer and Inter Miami 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.”

Hong Kong sports, culture and tourism secretary Kevin Yeung said the deal required Messi to play at least 45 minutes.

On Friday, Tatler Asia, the organizer of Sunday’s Inter Miami game in Hong Kong — which had already issued two apologies — announced it will issue a 50 percent refund to ticket holders. The refund will reportedly amount to $7.2 million.

On Wednesday in Tokyo, Messi played 30 minutes in Inter Miami’s 4-3 penalty shootout loss to J-League champion Vissel Kobe. While his appearance thrilled Tokyo spectators, it further roiled Hong Kong.

“The coach … announced in Hong Kong on February 4 that Messi could not play due to injury, but three days later, Messi acted freely and played in Japan, and did a lot of intense sports on the football field,” Hong Kong’s sports bureau wrote to Reuters. “Hong Kong citizens have lots of questions.”

Inter Miami will play a Feb. 15 preseason match against Newell’s Old Boys, Messi’s boyhood club in Argentina. The club will open the MLS season at home on Feb. 21 against Real Salt Lake.