Messi wants to be friends with China again as he gears up for blockbuster MLS season

February 20 – Lionel Messi insists his failure to play in an exhibition game in Hong Kong had nothing to do with politics and that he was unable to play because of an inflamed abductor muscle.

Messi enraged supporters after skipping the fixture that was part of a global Inter Miami tour ahead of the start of the MLS regular season on Wednesday.

Fans who paid hundreds of dollars per ticket were furious when Messi, 36, did not take the field during the sold-out game on February 4. The Hong Kong government, which had been planning to sponsor the game, demanded an explanation.

Their anger was further fuelled three days later when Messi played 30 minutes in an exhibition game in Japan. In an editorial, the Chinese state-backed nationalist tabloid Global Times suggested that Messi and Inter Miami had “political motives”

But in a video posted late Monday on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of X, Messi reiterated that he had been unable to play because of injury.

The day before the Hong Kong game “I tried to train and made an effort for all those who had come to watch training,” he insisted.

“But I really couldn’t play. I felt discomfort and there was a risk it would get worse,” he added, saying that he felt better by the day of the Japan game.

Messi said it was “totally untrue” that he had not played in Hong Kong for political reasons.

“Had that been the case, I wouldn’t have even travelled to Japan or visited China as many times as I have,” he said in the 140-second video, speaking Spanish over Chinese and English subtitles. “Since the start of my career, I’ve had a very close and special relationship with China.”

The fallout from Messi’s no-show has been extensive, with the Chinese city of Hangzhou cancelling a friendly game next month between world champions Argentina, which Messi captains, and Nigeria.

Just last year, Messi received a rock star welcome in Beijing when he played for his country in a friendly against Australia. Some 68,000 fans paid up to $680 for the chance to see him in action. He is also a spokesperson for big Chinese brands such as Huawei, Chery, Tencent, Mengniu, Chishui River Wine and J&T Express.

Meanwhile Messi Mania returns to Major League Soccer as Messi embarks on his first full season with Inter Miami.

The club recently signed Luis Suarez, reuniting the two close friends and making Miami the team to watch heading into the MLS’s 29th season.

Season ticket sales are up 15% this season over the same time last year, overall league sponsorship revenue is up 17% while club revenue is up 15%, and merchandise sales are up 44% over this time last year.

“I think that this will put MLS on a different trajectory that started when (David) Beckham came to MLS,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber remarked about Messi’s impact. “And who knows what that’s going to look like years from now? But certainly we’re in a different position today than we had been, with Messi in our league.”

“I think we still have so much work to do,” Garber told The Associated Press. “To look forward, the next couple of years are going to be the most important years in the history of our league with the eyes of the world again on us with Copa America, the Club World Cup in the FIFA World Cup in ’26.  We need to continue to work hard, operate almost as a startup and continue to build the fan engagement in our league at all levels.”

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