The marriage of global football star Lionel Messi and MLS club Inter Miami is continuing along a bumpy road.
Messi suffered injuries and inefficiency down the stretch last season, significantly diminishing an overwhelmingly positive first couple of months, reports bdnews24.com citing Reuters.
During a long 2024 preseason road trip that included stops in El Salvador and Saudi Arabia, Messi and teammate Luis Suarez missed last Sunday's match in Hong Kong because of injuries. The team faced an angry backlash from fans, some of whom demanded refunds for their tickets.
Inter Miami beat Hong Kong XI 4-1.
Making matters worse, the coach of Inter Miami, Gerardo Martino, had said his prize star would "likely" play in Hong Kong.
A large advertising campaign was built around the match, whose organizer is now said to be withdrawing $2 million in government grants for the event.
"The (Hong Kong) government, as well as football fans, are extremely disappointed that Messi could neither play in the friendly match, nor explain to the fans in person upon request," Hong Kong officials said.
"The way that the organizer and Inter Miami handled the situation could not meet the expectations of the fans who showed strong support to Messi, especially those visitors who came all the way here for the match."
Hong Kong sports, culture and tourism secretary Kevin Yeung said the deal required Messi to play at least 45 minutes.
Inter Miami plays a 34-match regular season, in addition to other competitions.
Messi, 36, is the latest in a long list of aging sports stars who have been held out of competition as part of a load management plan.
Inter Miami is scheduled to play Wednesday in Tokyo before returning to Miami for a Feb 15 preseason match against Newell's Old Boys, Messi's boyhood club in Argentina.
Reuters says after disappointing a legion of fans in Hong Kong with a no-show on the pitch at the weekend, Lionel Messi left open the possibility of playing in Inter Miami's friendly in Tokyo, saying he left "much better" than he did a few days ago.
The Argentine's benching for the highly-anticipated match in front of a sellout crowd at Hong Kong Stadium has turned into a public relations debacle for his Major League Soccer side and organisers of the local event.
Speaking to media for the first time since the team and their co-owner David Beckham were booed off the field, Messi said on Tuesday it was "disappointing" that he was unable to play, citing swelling in his adductor muscle.
"In Hong Kong, we had an open-door training session and I went out because there was such a big crowd there and there was a clinic with the kids, and I wanted to be there and participate," the 36-year-old told a press conference at a Tokyo hotel.
"But the truth is that the discomfort was still there and it was very difficult for me to play.
"I can understand that people were looking forward to it and I hope that there will be another opportunity for me to play in Hong Kong."
The Inter Miami skipper, who led Argentina to a World Cup triumph in 2022, was coy about whether he would play in Wednesday's friendly against J-League champions Vissel Kobe.
"For tomorrow, I don't know, we'll need to see how it goes in training today," he added. "We still don't know if I would be able to or not, but I feel much better than I did a few days ago and really want to be able to play."
Messi spoke at the press conference alone after appearances by Beckham, coach Tata Martino and team mates Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez were cancelled at the last minute.
Unlike in Hong Kong, scores of tickets were still available a day before the Tokyo match, after going on sale in late December.