Lionel Messi of Inter Miami plays in the friendly soccer match between Vissel Kobe and Inter Miami at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, on February 7.
Chinese authorities have canceled two Argentine national team soccer matches amid a growing backlash in the country against star player Lionel Messi.
Messi has faced an avalanche of criticism after remaining on the bench during an exhibition match with his Major League Soccer team, Inter Miami, in Hong Kong.
A crowd of 40,000 attended the match in Hong Kong, many hoping to see the man widely regarded as the best footballer in the world, but the occasion ended bitterly when fans booed, jeered and demanded refunds for not being allowed into the match. field. .
Since then, Messi said he wanted to play, but was kept off the field due to injury. But that hasn’t stopped a torrent of criticism on the Chinese Internet.
The latest sign of Chinese discontent with Messi came on Friday, when sports authorities in Beijing and Hangzhou said they would no longer host the two friendly matches that the Argentine team was scheduled to play in March.
The team was supposed to face Nigeria at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center and Ivory Coast at the Beijing Workers’ Sports Complex.
But on Friday, the Hangzhou Sports Bureau said in a WeChat post that the game had been canceled “in view of the reason everyone knows.”
“The conditions for holding the event are immature and it has been decided that the event must be cancelled,” he added.
Later that day, the Beijing Football Association announced the cancellation of the remaining match.
“Recently, many fans and netizen friends have asked about Messi’s game in Beijing,” the football authority said in a social media post, adding: “Beijing currently has no plans to host relevant competitions involving Messi. “.
Messi remained on the bench when Inter Miami played the Hong Kong team on February 4, despite repeated requests from the Hong Kong government and organizer Tatler Asia for him to take the field.
His coach later said that Messi was injured and that the medical team had advised him at the last minute not to play. Messi later said that it had been a “shame” and that he wanted to participate.
His subsequent 30-minute appearance in a friendly match days later against Vissel Kobe in Japan only further angered Chinese fans, with many – including pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong – likening it to an insult to China.
Messi now faces a public relations nightmare in one of the world’s most lucrative sports markets where, until now, he had enjoyed huge popularity.
On Friday, Hong Kong match organizer Tatler XFEST announced it would refund 50% of ticket prices to fans, a move it said would cost the company $7.1 million and leave it facing losses of almost 5.5 million dollars.
“Our aspiration was to create an iconic moment in support of the government’s efforts to remind the world how relevant and exciting Hong Kong is. That dream today has been broken for us and for all those who bought tickets to see Messi on the field,” said the company, which publishes Tatler-branded magazines throughout Asia.