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 sustained as there were already reports that the star player was carrying a hamstring problem since Miami’s previous friendly against Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia.
“Leo has an inflammation of the adductor as we saw from the images of his muscles. We were expecting an improvement, but the situation has been there for many days,” Martino said, adding that Suarez sustained a knee injury during the Saudi Arabia trip.
“We were checking it constantly with the medical team, and we also had to consider our obligations with the upcoming MLS [Major League Soccer]. So we came to the conclusion not to play Messi in the match.
“In reality, we have been assessing Leo’s condition day-by-day. Yesterday [Saturday] he was in the final training [session], and we assessed it in the hotel until this morning. The decision was not made until the afternoon.”
Hong Kong XI captain Yapp Hung-fai, who played in the first-half of Sunday’s match, said he was “of course quite disappointed” not to have played against Messi, but was still appreciative of the experience.
“On a personal note, obviously quite disappointed because he doesn’t go to Hong Kong much,” said Yapp, who was captaining a team of players from across the first division.
“But we have to think about our own performance and not focus too much on the opponents, who were still of a high level. To play in a full stadium is already satisfying.”
The overall sentiment was shared by local Messi superfan Christer Leung, who spearheads the city’s Argentina national team supporters’ club.
“I think everyone’s disappointed,” Leung, who named his son Lionel after the forward, told CNN.
“It was unexpected, I thought he would feature for at least five minutes. Otherwise we wouldn’t have paid the ticket prices to get in here. You heard the mood, which was I think justified but uncalled for at the same time.
“This whole Messi in Hong Kong thing has been building up for quite some time. Everyone was so excited and there was so much drama with the tickets.
“The training session [on Saturday] was also quite disappointing because he didn’t really do much and it was cut short. Everyone expected today would be a little bit more, so everyone is going to be disappointed.
“But, as his supporter for a long time, I fully respect the decision not to play him if he is really suffering, because he’s 36.
“I blame Inter Miami scheduling so many friendlies in so many different places. They should have invited everyone to come to America. I guess they wanted to grow the brand internationally, which makes sense.”
“Messi mania” had captured the city with the team’s arrival on Friday as fans swarmed the hotel that Miami were staying at. Meanwhile, the stadium had already reached full capacity during the team’s open training session the evening before.
Ardent support for Messi also gripped mainland China last summer after the Argentina national team played a friendly match against Australia in Beijing.
It was the superstar’s seventh time in China, and his eighth could come in March as Argentina confirmed two friendly matches against Nigeria and Ivory Coast in Hangzhou and Beijing.
Inter Miami now travels to Japan for a friendly against Vissel Kobe on Wednesday.