After failing to win any of their first four preseason games, Inter Miami finally registered a victory as they beat Hong Kong XI 4-1 on Sunday, but star attraction Lionel Messi’s absence prompted the country’s government to express its disappointment.
The eight-time Ballon d’Or winner, who is reportedly struggling with a hamstring injury, was not included in Inter Miami’s matchday squad despite head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino telling a news conference on Friday that Messi was “likely” to feature in the game.
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Martino also elected to leave the team’s three other former Barcelona stars — Sergio Busquets, Luis Suárez and Jordi Alba — on the bench from the start in Hong Kong.
Spectators chanted “refund,” and the Hong Kong government said match organisers Tatler Asia may face a reduction in funding after Messi stayed on the bench during the match.
The Major Sports Events Committee (MSEC) had granted 15 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.92 million) for the event along with a grant of 1 million Hong Kong dollars for the venue, the government said in a statement.
“Regarding Messi not playing the match today, the Government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organisers’ arrangement. The organiser owes all football fans an explanation,” they said.
“The MSEC will take follow-up actions with the organiser according to the terms and conditions, which includes reducing the amount of funding as a result of Messi not playing the match.”
The organisers said they expected Messi and Suarez to play and were extremely disappointed that they did not feature in the match.
“Despite some news reports, Tatler did not have any information about the non-participation of Messi or Suarez prior to kick off,” they said in a statement.
“Messi and Suarez were deemed unfit to play by their team’s medical department, to everyone’s, including our, disappointment.”
Martino said playing Messi and Suarez could have posed a risk of aggravating their injuries.
“Well, Leo has swelling in the adductor [muscle]. … When we sat down with the medical team they voiced their view that it was very risky for this footballer to play today,” he told reporters. “In Luis’ case, he has a problem with his knee. He woke up swollen after the second match in [Saudi] Arabia. So he wasn’t fit for today’s match.
“We understand the disappointment from the crowd who came to the stadium today that Leo and Luis were absent,” he added.
It was Inter Miami who took the lead in Sunday’s friendly when Robert Taylor shifted the ball onto his right foot and curled a shot into the far corner from the edge of the penalty area in the 40th minute.
Inter Miami’s lead didn’t last long, though, as just 3 minutes later, Henri Anier equalised for the Hong Kong XI to ensure the teams went into the break level at 1-1.
Lawson Sunderland tapped Inter Miami back in front when he was found in space inside the six-yard box by Ryan Sailor shortly after half-time.
Four minutes later, Leonardo Campana put Inter Miami 3-1 up via a deflected shot that wrong-footed goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai.
Inter Miami took full control of the match after Martino introduced Busquets and Alba just after the hour mark, with Sailor scoring the team’s fourth goal when his glancing header went in off the post.
Sunday’s victory was Inter Miami’s first in five preseason games. Following defeats to FC Dallas and Saudi Pro League club Al Hilal, Inter Miami were thrashed 6-0 by Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr on Thursday. However, the Portuguese forward missed the match after picking up a calf injury.
The MLS side continue their preseason tour when they face Vissel Kobe on Wednesday in Japan.
Information from Reuters was used in this report.