Chinese authorities have canceled two football matches featuring Argentina’s national team amid a growing backlash in the country against star player Lionel Messi.
Messi has faced an outpouring of criticism after he remained on the bench during an exhibition game featuring his Major League Soccer team Inter Miami in Hong Kong.
A sellout crowd of 40,000 had attended the match in Hong Kong – many of them hoping to see the man widely seen as the world’s best footballer, but the occasion ended acrimoniously when fans booed, jeered and demanded refunds as he failed to take to the pitch.
Messi has since said he wanted to play but was kept off the field due to an injury. But that hasn’t stopped a torrent of criticism heading his way on the Chinese internet.
The latest sign of Chinese displeasure with Messi came on Friday, when sports authorities in Beijing and Hangzhou said they would no longer host the two friendly matches the Argentinian team was slated to play in March.
The team was supposed to take on Nigeria at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center and Ivory Coast at the Beijing Workers’ Sport Complex.
But on Friday, Hangzhou Sports Bureau said in a post on WeChat the game had been cancelled “in view of the reason everyone knows.”
“The conditions for holding the event are immature and it has been decided that the event should be cancelled,” it added.
Later in the day, the Beijing Football Association announced the cancellation of the remaining game.
“Recently, many fans and netizen friends have asked about Messi’s game in Beijing,” the football authority said in a post on social media, adding, “Beijing currently has no plans to host relevant competitions in which Messi will participate.”
Messi stayed on the substitute 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 get on the field.
His coach later said Messi was injured and had been advised by the medical team at the last minute not to play. Messi later said this had been a “shame,” and that he had 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 widespread popularity.
On Friday, Hong Kong match organizer Tatler XFEST announced that it would refund 50% of the ticket price for fans, a move it said would cost the company $7.1 million and leave it facing nearly $5.5 million in losses.
“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 is broken today for us and all those who bought tickets to see Messi on the pitch,” said the company, which publishes Tatler branded magazines across Asia.