Lionel Messi's three days of adulation in Hong Kong ended in heartbreak for his fans as the Argentine did not take to the field in Inter Miami's 4-1 win against a local League XI in a friendly played in front of a sellout crowd on Sunday.
Messi was on the bench along with former Barcelona striker Luis Suarez, but neither were brought on. There had been concerns that Messi, who made a substitute appearance in Miami's 6-0 defeat at Al-Nassr on Friday, had a hamstring injury.
Some 40,000 fans had flocked to Hong Kong Stadium for Saturday's training session alone, chanting "Messi! Messi! Messi!" and holding aloft copies of his number 10 jersey as he and club co-owner David Beckham interacted with local children.
"I started watching football because of Messi. He's been my idol since day one," said 16-year-old Aasir Mubarak. "It's my first day looking at Messi in person, so it's going to be a very special day and I'll remember this for life."
The World Cup winner had been mobbed by adoring fans decked out in Argentina's blue and white or Miami's pink since landing from Saudi Arabia on Friday, with hundreds waiting outside the team hotel to try and get a glimpse of the 36-year-old.
"I feel especially excited today because I've been a big fan of Messi since 2014 when I started watching football, but I never had the chance to get close to him," said Gary Sheng, a 19-year-old student.
"Today, words can't describe my feelings. When the football king is just a few metres away from you, this excitement is beyond words. I just feel incredibly happy."
Hong Kongers wasted no time when match tickets were made available for purchase in December, snapping them up within an hour as excitement heightened over the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner playing his first match in the territory since 2014.
Messi can expect similar scenes in Tokyo when Miami continue their pre-season tour versus J.League champions Vissel Kobe on Wednesday.
They kick off their Major League Soccer campaign against Real Salt Lake on Feb 21.