In the face of public outrage and official pressure, Tatler Asia's CEO Michel Lamuniere announced on Monday the withdrawal of the application for HK$16 million grant from the government for the pre-season friendly between the Inter Miami team and a Hong Kong select XI.
Lamuniere addressed a press briefing on Monday evening where he read out a statement confirming Messi had been contracted to take the field for at least 45 minutes, unless injured, in the match. The 36-year-old World Cup-winning captain was benched over a hamstring injury, prompting boos and calls for refunds from irate fans who had shelled out exorbitant amounts to see the World Cup-winning captain play.
As reported earlier in the day, tickets hinged on Messi's star power and were sold between HK$880 to HK$4,880 (roughly $113 and $624) far exceeding typical costs, heightening fans' frustrations. To give a comparison, tickets for such events ordinarily cost around HK$80—but this was hyped by Tatler as the city’s most anticipated SAR event with a world-class soccer players lineup.
Billboards were up on several MTR stations in the SAR and other locations and featured Messi right in the middle as the main attraction.
"Tatler Asia deeply regrets the disappointing ending to what was an exciting occasion," said Michel Lamuniere, chairman and CEO, in the statement.
"(Tatler Asia) has decided to officially withdraw its application for... the HK$16 million government grant."
Lamuniere did not field any press questions and there was no official word on the clamour for refunds. He said the organisers were made aware that Messi would not play only at half-time, after he had been named among the substitutes, and "Tatler Asia immediately informed the government."
That appeared to contradict Hong Kong’s secretary for culture, sports and tourism Kevin Yeung, who told reporters on Monday that government officials had been repeatedly assured Messi would play, even after half-time.
However, just 10 minutes before the final whistle, officials were informed that Messi’s injury—an inflammation of an abductor muscle—would prevent his participation. Yeung says that despite requesting alternative solutions, such as Messi interacting with fans and receiving the trophy, the situation was not resolved as hoped.
"We immediately requested (the organisers) to explore other remedies, such as Messi appearing on the field to interact with his fans and receiving the trophy," Yeung said.
"Unfortunately, as you all see, this did not work out."
Moreover, the official team list, submitted by head coach Gerardo Martino before the match, included Messi and three other star players on the substitute list. This inclusion strongly indicated their suitability for playing in the game.
The fallout was swift.
Angry spectators lodged complaints, seeking accountability. The Hong Kong Consumer Council received 38 grievances, totaling HK$216,964 in expenses. The promotional blitz by Tatler featured Messi’s face right in the midst of all marketing material, leading fans to expect his magic on the field. Minister Yeung says spectators can contemplate independent legal recourse.
“Consumers can also seek independent legal advice on whether the incident is suspected of breaching a contract or could be subject to civil lawsuits," Yeung said in a press conference.
As Inter Miami prepares for their final pre-season match against Japan’s Vissel Kobe, uncertainty looms. Will Messi recover in time?