This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Under the cloud of the government’s accelerated legislation of more sweeping national security laws, soccer legend Lionel Messi’s sit-out of a Hong Kong friendly match that was intended to ease the doldrums in the city has backfired, compelling authorities to consider cutting funding support for the event.
The event on Sunday evoked public resentment, with Hong Kong fans and citizens lashing out at the Argentine for remaining on the bench. Messi’s fellow star teammate, Uruguay’s Luis Suárez, also did not take to the pitch.
U.S. Major League Soccer team Inter Miami defeated a select Hong Kong XI 4-1 in a friendly match, which its organizer, Tatler Asia, had promoted to feature Messi and Suárez.
The Hong Kong government issued two statements to distance itself from the debacle, seizing the opportunity to align with a public that has become increasingly distrustful of the authorities. It has threatened to cut its sponsorship funding to Tatler Asia.
“Regarding Messi not playing the match today, the Government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organizers’ arrangement. The organizer owes all football fans an explanation,” it said in the first statement.
The government’s Major Sports Events Committee (MSEC) had granted HK$15 million (US$1.92 million) for the event along with a HK$1 million (US$128,000) grant for the venue.
“The MSEC will take follow-up actions with the organizer according to the terms and conditions, which includes reducing the amount of funding as a result of Messi not playing the match.”
The second statement added that the match had also drawn many tourists to the city and chided Inter Miami for failing to meet fans’ expectations.
Organizer Tatler Asia said it did not have any information about the “non-participation” of Messi or Suárez prior to kick-off.
“Messi and Suárez were deemed unfit to play by their team’s medical department, to everyone’s, including ours, disappointment,” according to a statement.
The fee paid to Inter Miami to play in Hong Kong is reportedly US$10 million, and local media reports cited people in the know as saying the contract signed between the organizer and the government stipulated that Messi had to take the pitch for 45 minutes unless he was injured.
They also said that Messi was to say a few words to fans.