Nikita Mishra
Feb 5, 2024

Tatler's Messi mess: Hong Kong event plunges into chaos without star player

Angry fans booed during the pre-season friendly after a Lionel Messi no-show and the Hong Kong government said organisers, Tatler Asia, might face a reduction in funding.

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Nearly 40,000 soccer fans in Hong Kong were left frustrated as Argentine superstar Lionel Messi remained sidelined during Inter Miami's friendly match against a Hong Kong XI on Sunday.

What began as cheers of anticipation quickly turned into a chorus of boos and demands for refunds from the near-capacity crowd of 38,323. The absence of Messi, coupled with Uruguay striker Luis Suarez's injury, left fans feeling cheated and disillusioned.

Shouts of "refund, refund, refund" reverberated throughout the packed stadium, prompting the Hong Kong government to intervene. The Major Sports Events Committee (MSEC) expressed deep disappointment over the organisers' handling of Messi's absence, hinting at possible funding reductions.

"Regarding Messi not playing the match today, the government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organisers' arrangement. The organiser owes all football fans an explanation," the government's major sports events committee (MSEC) said.

"The MSEC will take follow-up actions with the organiser according to the terms and conditions, which includes reducing the amount of funding as a result of Messi not playing the match."

The government shelled out a total of HK$ 16 million of public money for the event that included a grant of one million Hong Kong dollars for the venue.

In the latter half of the game, shouts of "We want Messi" intensified, as the Argentina captain continued to watch from the bench.

Inter Miami co-owner, David Beckham, also faced the wrath of the crowd. Beckham's post-match speech was overshadowed by the cacophony of boos, marking a dramatic turn of events where anticipation turned to disappointment and anger.

Lionel Messi (second from left), Sergio Busquets (third from left) and other Inter Miami substitutes watch the match in Hong Kong. Photo Reuters

Throughout the game on Sunday morning, Tatler Asia’s Instagram was updated with stories about the event coverage, but the media company’s delay in issuing a formal statement, that came hours after government intervention, exacerbated the crisis.

In response, Tatler Asia, expressed regret over Messi and Suarez's non-participation, attributing it to their team's medical department.

"Despite some news reports, Tatler did not have any information about the non-participation of Messi or Suarez prior to kick off. Messi and Suarez were deemed unfit to play by their team's medical department, to everyone's, including ours, disappointment," it read.

American team's coach, Gerardo Martino, later revealed that Messi had been suffering from muscle inflammation and they knew of his condition the morning of the game, adding fuel to the controversy. Martino ignored a follow up question about whether he is surprised at the depth of feeling following the game.

Lawmaker Kenneth Fok who represents the sports sector, spoke to public broadcasting service RTHK, and criticised Inter Miami for showing disrespect to local football fans by failing to engage with spectators. Fok argued that even if Messi wasn't fit to play in the match on Sunday, he could have interacted with spectators at Hong Kong Stadium in other ways.

Tickets for the star-studded event went on sale on December 15 started from HK$880 to HK$4,880 (roughly $113 and $624) far exceeded typical costs, heightening fans' frustrations. To give a comparison, tickets of such events ordinarily cost around HK$80—but this was played up by Tatler as the city’s most anticipated SAR event with a world-class soccer players lineup.  

In a December 2023 press release shared with Campaign Asia-Pacific, Tatler Asia CEO Michel Lamunière had touted the event as a celebration of Hong Kong's resurgence and excellence in hosting international events. "Tatler XFEST is more than just a football game; it's a celebration of the best of Hong Kong through a combination of city-wide sporting, lifestyle and luxury experiences. We envision Tatler XFEST as an annual extravaganza, set to become the city's most anticipated event of the year,” he said. 

He added: “Hosting such a prestigious event demonstrates Hong Kong's resurgence as Asia’s World City, the super-connector and a hub for international events. We aim to deliver these experiences while bolstering Hong Kong's reputation as a city known for its excellence in hosting such events.”

 The press release that announced details of ticket sales clearly stated: The highly anticipated game will host an Inter Miami CF squad that is set to feature an all-star line-up of unparalleled greats of the game, including footballing genius and Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain Lionel Messi, along with teammates Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets.

However, the reality fell short of expectations, leaving fans and organisers alike grappling with the aftermath of Messi's absence.

Sports injuries are regular occurrences, but what irked fans was the inability of the soccer star to make an appearance on the ground or interact despite the mega hype of the event and steep ticket prices.

Local Messi superfan Christer Leung, who spearheads the city’s Argentina national team supporters’ club went live on CNN to sum up the situation: “I think everyone’s disappointed,” Leung, who named his son Lionel after the forward.

“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.”

A video went viral on local social media showed a fan taking a flying kick at a board featuring the Inter Miami players and knocked Messi's head clean off (picture below).

As Inter Miami heads to Japan for their next match, the fallout from Messi's no-show serves as a stark reminder of the challenges faced by organisers in delivering on promises made to eager fans. 

Campaign Asia

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