Messi and Suarez get on the pitch in Japan, further infuriating Hong Kong and questioning the Miami business case

February 9 – After a sensational opening to the Lionel Messi American dream, which soured as 2023 came to a close, the beginning of 2024 has brought forth even more challenges, underscoring the precariousness for both the league and Inter Miami as they pin their performance hopes and business ambition on the Argentinian superstar.

Upon signing the Argentine superstar in July 2023, who lifted the World Cup just six months prior, Inter Miami fandom surged with levels of engagement that saw their opponents shift their home games from the own football specific 20,00+ stadia to NFL venues of 60,000+.

On the pitch Messi turned a losing team into a winning one, surging to the inaugural Leagues Cup – a new MLS vs LigaMX competition that sees all the clubs in both leagues battle for the title. But as the 2023 season ended so Messi’s mercurial powers waned after he picked up a series of injuries that saw him ruled out from the club’s closing matches.

With all the troubles on the pitch, the club’s deepest concern will be the off-pitch consequences of the Argentine’s absences on their parade of their superstar talent through Asia. Inter Miami would not be on this tour and selling out without Messi. But a non-playing Messi was not part of the deal and that is coming back to bite them.

After last Sunday’s match in Hong Kong fans booed and demanded ticket refunds after both Messi and teammate Luis Suárez failed to play due to further injuries.

To make the situation worse, both Messi and Luis Suarez featured in Inter Miami’s shootout loss versus Vissel Kobe in Japan, adding a barrel of gasoline to an already angry fire.

Seething with Messi’s absence in Hong Kong but recovery in time for Japan, State media outlet Global Times accused the footballer and his club Inter Miami of “political motives” with the aim of “embarrassing” Hong Kong.

XFEST Hong Kong, the entity overseeing the Hong Kong event, had already opted to forgo around $2 million in government grants linked to the match. Messi’s prominent role in pre-match promotions heightened fan expectations, with Inter Miami coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino stating on Friday that Messi was “likely” to play in the Hong Kong match.

“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,” Hong Kong officials said. “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.”

The club’s ongoing pre-season tour, which has seen stops in El Salvador, Dallas, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and Japan has revealed a host of new problems alongside the unfolding drama, underscored by their reliance on the 36-year-old for not only results, but relevance in the media spotlight.

During Messi’s hiatus due to a reoccurring injury, the team has generated just one win from five matches on the tour thus far, including a 6-0 thrashing by Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr in Saudi.

The preseason tour brings attention to the escalating worries surrounding player load management in football.

For Inter Miami, the eight-match tour will precede a 34-game MLS regular season and entries into the Leagues Cup and Concacaf Champions Cup, amplifying the pressure on 36-year-old Messi and the uncertainty regarding the endurance of his physique under such demands.

At an age where most would consider retirement, Messi has become a crucial player to the team’s performance and even more important to the club’s business model.

High-profile players such as PSG’s Kylian Mbappe and FC Barcelona’s Pedri have spoken of the escalating amount of games professional players face, and its impact on injury records.

This season has already recorded a staggering number of anterior cruciate ligament injuries across European clubs, and with the UEFA Champions League format set to change to accommodate more teams, and more matches, the issue only looks set to grow.

Contact the writer of this story, Harry Ewing, at moc.l1709591639labto1709591639ofdlr1709591639owedi1709591639sni@g1709591639niwe.1709591639yrrah1709591639