Football: Chinese cancel scheduled Argentina v Ivory Coast friendly after Lionel Messi no-show at Hong Kong

Lionel Messi on the bench for Inter Miami.
Lionel Messi on the bench for Inter Miami. Photo credit: Getty Images

Argentina's upcoming friendly in China has been canceled by local authorities, the second match called off this week, amid controversy over star Lionel Messi's absence from a Hong Kong match.

Beijing's football association has announced it will not organise a friendly scheduled for March between Argentina and the Ivory Coast.

"Beijing does not plan, for the moment, to organise the match in which Lionel Messi was to participate," said the Beijing Football Association.

The cancellation comes a day after a friendly between Argentina and Nigeria, also planned for March, was nixed by the Hangzhou Sports Bureau.

During a long 2024 pre-season road trip with Inter Miami that included stops in El Salvador and Saudi Arabia, Messi, 36, missed a match in Hong Kong because of an injury. The team faced an angry backlash from fans, some of whom demanded refunds for their tickets, because the Argentinian did not play.

Making matters worse, Inter Miami coach Gerardo Martino said his star "likely" would play in Hong Kong.

A large advertising campaign was built around the match, whose organiser 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," said Hong Kong officials.

"The way that the organiser 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."

Fans gather to greet Lionel Messi at Hong Kong.
Fans gather to greet Lionel Messi at Hong Kong. Photo credit: Getty Images

Hong Kong sports, culture and tourism secretary Kevin Yeung says the deal required Messi to play at least 45 minutes.

Tatler Asia, the organiser of Sunday's Inter Miami game in Hong Kong - which had already issued two apologies - has announced it will issue a 50 percent refund to ticketholders. The refund will reportedly amount to US$7.2 million.

On Wednesday, in Tokyo, Messi played 30 minutes in Inter Miami's 4-3 penalty shootout loss to J-League champion Vissel Kobe. While his appearance thrilled Tokyo spectators, it further roiled Hong Kong.

"The coach... announced in Hong Kong on February 4 that Messi could not play due to injury, but three days later, Messi acted freely and played in Japan, and did a lot of intense sports on the football field," said Hong Kong's sports bureau. "Hong Kong citizens have lots of questions."

Inter Miami will play a February 15 pre-season match against Newell's Old Boys, Messi's boyhood club in Argentina. The club will open the Major League Soccer season at home on February 21 against Real Salt Lake.