The marriage of global football star Lionel Messi and MLS club Inter Miami is continuing along a bumpy road.
Messi suffered injuries and inefficiency down the stretch last season, significantly diminishing an overwhelmingly positive first couple of months.
During a long 2024 preseason road trip that included stops in El Salvador and Saudi Arabia, Messi and teammate Luis Suarez missed last Sunday's match in Hong Kong because of injuries. The team faced an angry backlash from fans, some of whom demanded refunds for their tickets.
Inter Miami beat Hong Kong XI 4-1.
Making matters worse, the coach of Inter Miami, Gerardo Martino, had said his prize star would "likely" play in Hong Kong.
A large advertising campaign was built around the match, whose organizer is now said to be withdrawing $2 million in government grants for the event.
"The (Hong Kong) government, as well as football fans, are extremely disappointed that Messi could neither play in the friendly match, nor explain to the fans in person upon request," Hong Kong officials said.
"The way that the organizer and Inter Miami handled the situation could not meet the expectations of the fans who showed strong support to Messi, especially those visitors who came all the way here for the match."
Hong Kong sports, culture and tourism secretary Kevin Yeung said the deal required Messi to play at least 45 minutes.
Inter Miami plays a 34-match regular season, in addition to other competitions.
Messi, 36, is the latest in a long list of aging sports stars who have been held out of competition as part of a load management plan.
Inter Miami is scheduled to play Wednesday in Tokyo before returning to Miami for a Feb 15 preseason match against Newell's Old Boys, Messi's boyhood club in Argentina.