There’s a David Beckham meme, taken from the recent Netflix Beckham documentary, that’s popular on social media at the moment. You know the one, you’ve seen it a thousand times or more, the one where Beckham harangues Victoria Beckham to “be honest” several times before she finally relents and tells the truth about her privileged upbringing.
After this weekend, fans, sponsors and the government of Hong Kong will feel that the meme needs an update, with David switching roles with Victoria, and the former England soccer star needing to “be honest” about the debacle Inter Miami, the team he co-owns, found themselves in with the latest match on their global pre-season tour.
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On Sunday, Beckham’s Inter Miami took the field against a Hong Kong select team, and the MLS side will be happy enough with what happened on the pitch, a relatively straightforward 4-1 victory, without the need for star player Lionel Messi to play a single minute. Indeed, Messi remained on the bench the entire game, dressed in casual clothing and sneakers, not even looking like he would ever play. And therein lay the rather huge problem and root cause of a PR disaster.
Almost 40,000 Hong Kong fans, some of whom had spent between $112 and $570 for a ticket and many thousands of dollars more on resale sites, attended Sunday’s match and were overwhelmingly there to see Messi play some part in the game. With the clock running down and Messi increasingly likely to sit out, the boos and calls for a refund began to ring out loudly at the Hong Kong Stadium long before the final whistle. When Beckham, a man who is generally popular in Asia, took to the field, the boos only intensified.
It was later revealed by Inter Miami that Messi and teammate Luis Suárez, the side’s other superstar, sat out the game due to injury, and both players couldn’t be risked before the club’s MLS season begins on Feb. 22. This information was not revealed before kick-off and there was still confusion as to when Messi got injured and why the information wasn’t relayed to local fans much earlier.
What’s probably most questionable: they have known that Messi won’t play in advance (didn’t wear football boots or shorts; didn’t warm up) but still kept the promise going (and firing up the crowd) before KO and HT
— Football in Hong Kong (@offsideHK) February 4, 2024
The situation will be familiar to MLS fans last season, with many paying sky-high prices to see the Argentine star after he signed for Inter Miami, only for the player to sit out some games due to injury. However, the missed MLS games have been one of the few negative stories from Messi’s time in the U.S., with the player warmly received by the American public thanks to a concerted push from MLS, an Apple TV+ documentary series Messi Meets America and even Super Bowl ads. Apple is also streaming and giving wall-to-wall coverage of Inter Miami’s world tour.
Alas, the no-show in Hong Kong didn’t afford Messi any grace, and social media was ablaze with fury, with some apoplectic fans destroying promo materials featuring the player, and many more directing their anger at Beckham, Inter Miami and event organizer Tatler Asia.
Furious fan kick Messi’s cardboard head in Hong Kong as he didn’t kick a ball the whole match – circulated online pic.twitter.com/2dN9liKvjw
— Kris Cheng (@krislc) February 4, 2024
The exhibition match was a big deal for Hong Kong. The visit of Messi, global icon, World Cup winner, record eight-time winner of the Ballon d’Or and perhaps the greatest soccer player in history had captured the imagination of the local fans, sponsors and even the Hong Kong government that has been keen to back big events to show the world a more positive side of the city after its tourism industry took a battering due to its restrictive travel policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
haven’t seen hk so united in anger towards a bunch of clueless foreigners since expats debuted last week https://t.co/h6y8NrKRFk
— philip snarkin (@adamsbigideas) February 4, 2024
The South China Morning Post reports that Hong Kong’s government backed the game with $1.92 million in funds, and a further $128,000 subsidy, to event organizer Tatler Asia. And the organizers didn’t spare any money on promoting the match, starting their campaign months in advance, with Messi front and center of all materials. Tatler Asia even sold tickets to Inter Miami’s training sessions for the hardcore Messi fans who wanted to catch a glimpse of their idol.
In the week before the game, Messi’s face was everywhere in Hong Kong, on public transport, on social media and even on the famed LED billboards that adorn the city’s harbor. According to the SCMP, the contract for the game stipulated that Messi would “play for a minimum of 45 minutes unless ill or injured.”
Hong Kong journalist Aaron Busch tweeted that on Jan. 11, Tatler Asia posted a statement reassuring fans about Messi playing. “Tatler Asia wishes to reassure ticket-holders and football fans in Hong Kong that ALL Inter Miami marquee stars, including Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain Lionel Messi will be involved in playing in the Tatler XFEST Hong Kong fixture,” the statement read.
Everyone involved seemed confident that Messi would play at least some part in the game.
But alarm bells should have been ringing on Saturday, the day Inter Miami arrived at Hong Kong International Airport, with the team unwilling to play ball and take part fully in the official welcoming ceremony. Messi also made sporadic appearances at the open training session.
Hong Kong International Airport ceremony host: "I'm sure Hong Kong welcomes you all! Please remain on stage. Please stay with us."
Inter Miami: Nah. pic.twitter.com/jqYXR7RWk1
— Aaron Busch (@tripperhead) February 2, 2024
On Sunday, long after the game had ended in a chorus of boos and acrimony, the political blame game began. The SCMP reports that the government was angry about the situation, and had been told on the morning of the game that Messi would play. “Regarding Messi not playing the match today, the government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organizer’s arrangement. The organizer owes all football fans an explanation,” the Hong Kong government said in a statement.
The statement added, “The Major Sports Events Committee will follow up with the organizer according to the terms of the agreement, including the possibility of deducting sponsorship funds because Messi failed to play.”
In the face of fan anger, Tatler Asia also released a statement on Sunday, sharing their “extreme disappointment regarding Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez’s non-participation.” The statement added, “Despite some news reports, Tatler did not have any information about the non-participation of Messi or Suárez prior to kick off. Messi and Suárez were deemed unfit to play by their team’s medical department, to everyone’s, including ours, disappointment.”
As for Inter Miami, the team’s global tour is supposed to roll on to Japan and a match against Vissel Kobe on Feb. 7 before finishing in Messi’s native Argentina and a match against this first club side Newell’s Old Boys on Feb. 15. But once again fans will be demanding Beckham and co. to “be honest” as reports in Spain and on social media on Sunday suggested that the Vissel Kobe match has been canceled and the team will return home early.
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