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MLS

Hong Kong official makes Lionel Messi conspiracy claim

The organisers of Inter Miami’s preseason tour have offered a partial refund for supports in Hong Kong, but some think Messi’s absence was a planned snub.

Update:
Chinese-owned tabloid claims “political motives”
PETER PARKSAFP

Inter Miami may be back home in South Florida, but the fallout from their ill-fated preseason tour continues. The Herons’ penultimate overseas fixture was a 4-1 victory over a Hong Kong Select XI, their only win in six preseason fixtures.

But they did so without Lionel Messi, who missed the game due to an ongoing injury concern. The Argentine had participated in all other preseason fixtures and even took part in an open training session the day before the Hong Kong game.

However Messi was adjudged unable to take part in Hong Kong and, as the game drew to a close, the home crowd became increasingly frustrated at his lack of involvement. Chants of ‘Where is Messi?’ and ‘Refund, refund’ rolled around the stadium and the post-match niceties were overshadowed as Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham was roundly booed.

In the aftermath of the game, Hong Kong’s Major Sports Events Committee released a statement: “The Government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organisers’ arrangement. The organiser owes all football fans an explanation.”

Chinese-owned tabloid claims “political motives”

In the following days a number of Hong Kong officials took to social media to issue their own riposte, many of which questioned Messi’s inability to feature in Hong Kong. Conspiracy theories about the absence began to surface.

Lawmaker Kenneth Fok said that Messi’s subsequent appearance in the Vissel Kobe had “sprinkled salt” on the wound for supporters in Hong Kong. Senior advisor Regina Ip went further, accusing “Messi, Inter Miami and the black hand behind them” of a “deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong.”

But the most explicit of the conspiracy theories came from Global Times, a tabloid newspaper owned and operated by the Chinese government. The paper claimed that the decision not to play Lionel Messi was a calculated move with intervention from the US government.

“One theory is that their actions have political motives, as Hong Kong intends to boost economy through the event and external forces deliberately wanted to embarrass Hong Kong through this incident,” it wrote.

There is, of course, absolutely no evidence to support this suggestion. The inability of a 36-year-old to play six games in quick succession with minimal break is hardly grounds for a diplomatic incident. However it does show the cultural force that Messi exerts in all corners of the world, and the care with which Inter Miami need to wield that power.

Are Hong Kong supporters getting a refund?

Those in attendance at Hong Kong Stadium may not have seen Messi take to the field but they will at least be able to claim a proportion of their entry money back. Tour organiser Tatler XFEST announced that they would be issuing a 50% refund for those who bought tickets to the Hong kong friendly.

“Our aspiration was to create an iconic moment in support of the government’s efforts to remind the world how relevant and exciting Hong Kong is. That dream is broken today for us and all those who bought tickets to see Messi on the pitch,” the Tatler XFEST statement read.

The company claims that the decision will cost $7.1 million and will leave them facing more than $5 million in losses from the flagship event.

The preseason tour is over and Inter Miami can now concentrate on matters closer to home. The MLS season starts on Wednesday, February 21 when Messi and Miami host Real Salt Lake in the opening fixture of the 2024 campaign. That’s when the Argentine can really show his value to Inter Miami.