“Scam of the century”: Fans furious as Messi benched in Inter Miami CF exhibition match, Martino pleads for understanding

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Left: Gerardo Martino. Insert picture: Lionel Messi.

4th February 2024 – (Hong Kong) In the highly anticipated exhibition match between International Miami CF, led by Argentine football legend Lionel Messi, and the Hong Kong team at the Hong Kong Stadium, fans were left seething with anger as Messi remained on the bench throughout the game. The disappointment was palpable among the crowd, leading to widespread chants of “scam of the century” and calls for a reassessment of the team.

International Miami CF, who had invested heavily to bring their star players Messi and Luis Suárez to Hong Kong, faced the ire of the fans as both players were left out of the starting lineup. The discontent among the supporters was evident as they voiced their frustration by booing and chanting “scam” during the match. In a post-match press conference, International Miami CF coach Gerardo Martino addressed the issue and sought forgiveness from the Hong Kong fans.

Martino explained that Messi had been suffering from muscle inflammation, despite continuous assessment by the medical team in the past few days. Although Messi had participated in training the previous day, his condition had not improved sufficiently. Considering the risk involved and the impending start of the Major League Soccer season, the decision was made to rest Messi for the match after a morning examination.

Regarding Suárez, the coach highlighted that the player had sustained a knee inflammation following a collision in the previous game in Saudi Arabia. After careful evaluation, it was deemed unsuitable for him to participate in the match.

Martino, pleading for the fans’ understanding, said, “Over the past few days, we have felt the enthusiasm of the Hong Kong fans, and we thank you for your hospitality. I understand that the absence of Messi and Suárez has caused great disappointment. However, this was a decision made in consultation with the medical team. I also wanted to field both players, but the risk was too high, and I couldn’t take that chance. I understand everyone’s disappointment, and I hope the fans can forgive us.”

Not only Messi and Suárez but also Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba found themselves on the bench at the start of the game. This further fueled the frustration of the fans who had eagerly come to witness the footwork of the football maestro Messi. Among the spectators were Chief Executive John Lee, Financial Secretary Paul Chan and Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin. Yeung who attended the match.

During the exhibition match, cheers and chants from the crowd could be heard outside the stadium. Many citizens gathered around the area to catch a glimpse of the game, prompting police officers to remind them not to linger on the roads. However, as the match approached its conclusion, disappointed fans started leaving the stadium, expressing their anger and shouting “scam” due to Messi’s absence.

Tammy, a disgruntled fan leaving the stadium, expressed her fury, saying, “Inter Miami CF is a complete joke! This is the scam of the century, and I’m furious!” She had purchased a ticket worth HK$2,980 and felt utterly disappointed, regarding it as a waste of money. She even remarked, “Even if Messi had just come out to run for a minute, we wouldn’t have minded!”

Another fan from Guangzhou voiced his dissatisfaction, saying, “This is terrible! I saw Messi, but he didn’t play a single minute. How can this be called an exhibition match? Even if he had played for just one minute, it would have been worth it!” He had spent over HK$3,000 on tickets and had travelled from Guangzhou specifically for the game. He criticised the organisation, saying, “Hong Kong has managed this so poorly. Your economy is in such a mess!”

When asked if he would continue supporting Inter Miami CF, Mr. Chan responded with a question, “What is there to support now? I’m deeply disappointed today.” He had spent HK$4,800 on a ticket and felt deceived, exclaiming, “I came to Hong Kong just for Messi!” Other fans in the vicinity echoed his sentiment, describing the exhibition match as a “disgrace!”

A couple who had come specifically for Messi, stated that they would cry if he didn’t play and demanded a refund. They even vowed to block the exit and not let him leave. They expressed their anger, saying that even Beckham couldn’t compare to seeing Messi play.

Another fan expressed deep disappointment, stating that he had come solely for Messi and while he understood the possibility of an injury, he was truly let down.

David Mui, Vice President of the World Squash Federation and Chairman of Hong Kong Squash, expressed his profound disappointment, remarking that the government had spent a significant amount of money and the fans had made great efforts to be there. He also noted the absence of Suárez, saying it was disappointing but fortunate that there were a few goals to witness. The coach of the Hong Kong Women’s Football Team, José Ricardo Rambo, and his wife also shared their disappointment, particularly for the people of Hong Kong, who rarely have the opportunity to see such big football stars visit, only to be denied the chance to watch them play.