Lionel Messi was angered by Hong Kong's City away match

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The Hong Kong government has expressed its „deep disappointment” after Argentina soccer star Lionel Messi pulled out of a long-awaited exhibition game in the Chinese territory, angering fans.

Messi has failed to play as Hong Kong struggles to rebuild its status as a global hub amid a sluggish post-pandemic economic recovery and a major political crackdown by authorities in Beijing.

Many of the more than 38,000 people who attended Sunday's game between David Beckham-founded Inter Miami and a Hong Kong XI chanted, “Get your money back! Get the money back!”, after Messi stayed on the bench. Inter Miami won 4-1.

Hong Kong's government is counting on the event to boost the territory's appeal. Billboards bearing Messi's face have occupied key city center locations for weeks, and tickets for the game cost as much as HK$4,880 (US$620).

Hong Kong's government said in a statement on Sunday that „the government and all football fans are deeply disappointed that Messi was unable to play in the friendly match or explain to the fans in person.” Officials including Hong Kong President John Lee attended the competition.

The colleague also angered local pro-Beijing lawmakers. „This is outrageous!” Lawmaker Dominic Lee wrote on Facebook. „Messi's no-show has left many viewers disappointed with bad memories . . .[and]Damaged the city's reputation as a tourist destination.

Event organizer Tatler Asia has received at least HK$16mn in funding from the Hong Kong government, which may now reconsider funding. “Bureau of Culture, Sports and Tourism and MSEC [Major Sports Events Committee] „The organizer is responsible for relying on the terms and conditions of this agreement, including any reduction in funding as a result of Messi's inability to play in the tournament,” the government statement said.

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Hong Kong's struggle to attract big-ticket events has frustrated the government, with lawmakers debating in the city's parliament last month why touring musicians such as Taylor Swift have shunned the city in favor of rival Asian destinations.

In a separate statement, Tatler Asia distanced itself from Messi's no-show, saying he had no prior knowledge of Messi's non-participation, or former Liverpool star Luis Suarez's absence.

„We, along with all the football fans who attended the match, were looking forward to the participation of Messi and Suarez and share in the disappointment felt by everyone watching,” the organizer said.

Inter Miami coach Gerardo Martino apologized to fans in his post-match press conference, but said it was too „dangerous” for the Argentina star to play.

On Sunday, fans were frustrated and chanted, „We want Messi, we want Messi!” chanted, as Messi sat stony-faced on the bench midway through the match.

Mark Wong, wearing a Messi Argentina shirt, said he had come to see „Messi and the Hong Kong team”.

“People [in Hong Kong] They love football, but they don't get a chance to watch international games. Now they can come to watch international games,” Wong said, adding that it was “disappointing” not to see the star game.

Messi and the Inter Miami team are expected to leave Hong Kong on Monday. Inter Miami did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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