Sports bosses in China have canceled two friendlies featuring Argentina’s Lionel Messi after the soccer star did not feature for his club Inter Miami in a recent exhibition match in Hong Kong.
Argentina had a tour of China scheduled between March 18 and 26, where they were scheduled to face Nigeria in Hangzhou and Ivory Coast in Beijing.
But last week’s high-profile friendly between Inter Miami and a select XI in Hong Kong drew criticism and calls for refunds after Messi was ruled out due to injury.
Some nationalist politicians and media interpreted the absence of Inter Miami’s 4-1 win – and Messi’s subsequent appearance in a similar match in Japan – as disparaging China, without offering evidence.
“Beijing currently has no plans to host a match involving Lionel Messi,” the Beijing Football Association, which oversees soccer in the capital, said in a press release on Saturday.
The game in Hangzhou was canceled already on Friday evening.
“For reasons known to all, according to the authorities, the conditions for the event have not been met,” the Hangzhou Sports Bureau said.
Considered the best player of his generation, Messi is a marketable athlete that people around the world will pay top dollar to see, even in the twilight of his trophy-laden career.
Spectators who paid more than 1,000 Hong Kong dollars ($125) to see the 36-year-old in the southern Chinese city chanted “Refund!” as he sat out the game, giving thumbs-down signs and mocking team co-owner David Beckham as he tried to thank the crowd.
The Hong Kong government has sought clarification from the match’s organizer, Tatler Asia.
Tatler has since promised viewers a 50% refund.
Just days after his no-show, however, the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner played 30 minutes in a friendly in Japan – sparking outrage and accusations that he was singling out China.
Messi said it was “unfortunate” that he could not play and that he hoped to return to the city.
The cancellation of matches in China is causing headaches for the Argentine Football Association, which sees the Asian giant as a strategic market.
In June 2023, Argentina played a friendly match in Beijing while away, which led to lucrative contracts with local companies.
— Additional contribution by AFP