Speaking to reporters on Sunday after the match, Inter Miami head coach Gerardo Martino acknowledged fans’ disappointment but said he didn’t want to risk worsening the injuries of Messi, 36, and his teammate Luis Suárez of Uruguay, 37, who also sat out the game.
Inter Miami has been on a global tour of exhibition games ahead of its regular season, which starts Feb. 21. Messi and his teammates had arrived in Hong Kong on Friday from Saudi Arabia, and are due to play again in Japan on Wednesday.
Fans traveled from mainland China and other parts of Asia to see Messi, who hadn’t played in Hong Kong since 2014.
Zhang Yiyi, a 22-year-old admissions counselor from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, said her dream of seeing Messi play in person had been “shattered.”
“I have complicated feelings,” she said. “I truly wanted to see his magical power firsthand, to fulfill a dream of being a fan for 14 years.”
Yin Chao, 36, an advertising and marketing professional, paid 2,980 Hong Kong dollars ($380) for a ticket and took time off from his job in Shanghai just to see Messi play, noting there may be few opportunities left for him to personally witness the talents of aging, injury-plagued stars such as Messi and Suárez.
“It’s the post-match remarks made by the host and Beckham that we’re truly feeling a bit angry about,” he said. “In the face of boos from the entire crowd, [they] seemed to just be going through the motions and not responding at all.”
Michel Lamunière, Tatler Asia’s chairman and chief executive, said the company’s contract with Inter Miami required that Messi and other high-profile players participate in the game unless they were injured.
He said the official team sheet submitted before the game on Sunday listed Messi and Suárez as substitutes and that “accordingly, Tatler Asia had every expectation that both would play.”
Lamunière said Tatler Asia “immediately informed the government” when it learned at halftime that Messi would be unable to play due to injury, and that it asked Inter Miami to have Messi to address the fans instead, “to no avail.”
Lamunière did not mention the possibility of refunds or take questions from reporters at the news conference where he spoke.
Hong Kong sports minister Kevin Yeung said earlier that the government’s contract with Tatler Asia required Messi to play for at least 45 minutes, “subject to fitness and safety considerations.”
Yeung said Tatler Asia had confirmed before the match that Messi would play in the second half, and that the government wasn’t told he would not be playing until 10 minutes before the end of the game.
“We therefore immediately requested them 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, these did not work out.”