Chinese Officials Cancel Argentina Football Match amid Messi Backlash in Hong Kong

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Messi has faced widespread criticism after he remained on the bench during an exhibition game on Sunday that featured his Major League Soccer team Inter Miami in Hong Kong.

Chinese officials have cancelled two Argentina friendlies that were due to be hosted in the Asian country amid a growing backlash in China against star player Lionel Messi’s failure to play in his club’s friendly in Hong Kong.

Messi has faced widespread criticism after he remained on the bench during an exhibition game featuring his Major League Soccer team Inter Miami in Hong Kong.

A sellout crowd of 40,000 had attended the match in Hong Kong – many of them hoping to see the man widely seen as the world’s best footballer, but the occasion ended acrimoniously when fans booed, jeered, and chanted for their money back after Messi failed to take to the pitch.

Messi has since said that despite a strong desire to play, he was unable to do so because of a groin injury. He has also apologised on Chinese social media platform Weibo, saying: “I hope we will have the opportunity to go back [to Hong Kong] one day.”

But that has not stopped a torrent of criticism heading the 36-year-old’s way on the Chinese internet.

The latest sign of Chinese displeasure with Messi came on Friday, when the Hangzhou Sports Bureau said it would no longer host a friendly match between Argentina and Nigeria that was due to be held at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre.

“As a commercial event, a company and the Argentinean soccer team negotiated that the team would play a friendly match in March this year in the city of Hangzhou,” Hangzhou Sports Bureau said.

“In view of the current well-known reasons, according to the competent authorities, conditions for holding the friendly match are immature and the decision has been made to cancel the event,” it added, without referring to the saga almost a week ago.

The game in Hangzhou was one of two that the Argentina team was slated to play in China in March. The team is also scheduled to take on Ivory Coast at the Beijing Workers’ Sport Complex.

On Saturday, the Beijing Football Association nixed the Ivory Coast game, saying in a statement: “Beijing does not plan, for the moment, to organise the match in which Lionel Messi was to participate.”

There has been growing anger over Messi’s injury-related absence, partly due to his participation in Inter Miami’s friendlies before and after the game in Hong Kong. Additionally, the club’s head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said the day before the Sunday match that Messi was “likely” to play.

Messi stayed on the substitute bench when Inter Miami played the Hong Kong team on Sunday, despite repeated requests from the Hong Kong government and match organisers, Tatler Asia, for him to get on the field.

Inter Miami has since apologised for Messi’s absence and Tatler Asia has offered fans a 50% refund, a move the event promoter said would cost it $7.1 million and leave it facing nearly $5.5 million in losses.