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Enter the Dragon, exit Lionel Messi

Hong Kong, 7 February 2024: “My wife is crying upstairs. I hear cars coming to the house. Consigliere of mine, I think you should tell your Don what everyone seems to know.” So says ailing mafia boss Vito Corleone in one of The Godfather’s many brilliant scenes. Adviser Tom Hagen, glass in hand, admits to needing a stiff drink before coming to tell the powerful family head his eldest son and heir Sonny has been fatally shot. Being the bearer of bad news is an onerous task.

A pity, then, that no one from Inter Miami – fortified by alcohol or not – could summon the wherewithal to tell 38,000 fervent football fans what they definitely did not want to hear last Sunday: that Lionel Messi would be sitting out the much-hyped friendly against a local XI at Hong Kong Stadium. It turns out the superstar, nursing an injury in his precious 36-year-old legs, had failed a fitness assessment hours before kickoff, a fact confirmed post-match by Miami coach Gerardo Martino.

Ouch! Quite the problem, given the game’s entire promotional campaign had been built around one individual, ramping up Messi-mania to fever pitch and justifying ticket prices as high as HK$4,880 (US$573), not to mention attracting a VIP guest list topped by city leader John Lee. Best let everyone know ASAP, eh? Alas, silence from the Miami camp. Even worse, someone thought it would be an excellent idea to name Messi among the substitutes and sit on the bench in his tracksuit for the entire match, giving the impression he might enter the fray at any moment.

You may recall that in The Godfather, Vito – though stricken with grief – calls an end to the gang war that has cost him so dear: “I want no acts of vengeance.” But forgiveness was nowhere in sight at the sold-out Hong Kong Stadium as supporters belatedly realised their idol would not be playing. When the final whistle sounded with the diminutive Argentine genius still rooted in his seat, the mood turned ugly. Cue catcalls, chants of “Refund!” and angry waving of ticket stubs, while Miami co-owner David Beckham’s closing speech thanking supporters for their “incredible welcome” was drowned out by boos.

As we prepare to celebrate the Year of the Dragon – Kung Hey Fat Choi, dear readers! – Sunday’s spectacular own-goal has, appropriately, got citizens breathing fire. Seeking to douse the flames, match organiser Tatler Asia insists it was only informed at half-time by Miami management that Messi would not play. CEO Michel Lamuniere points out, not unreasonably, that the official team sheet listed Messi and high-profile teammate Luis Suarez – who also didn’t get on the field – “as substitutes and therefore fit to play”. His firm has now withdrawn its application for HK$16 million in government sponsorship.

Sports minister Kevin Yeung reveals he only heard the bad news 10 minutes before the final whistle, but urgent pleas to Miami for their missing-in-action star to address the crowd went unheeded. John Lee, having endured an awkward trophy presentation to 4-1 winners Miami amid the hostile atmosphere, also laments the “extremely disappointing” episode. He promises future major events seeking government backing will be “properly scrutinised”.

The Consumer Council, meanwhile, has received 629 complaints involving a total of HK$4.15 million. This includes fans who journeyed from Thailand and mainland China and are demanding compensation to cover travel and hotel costs. Chief executive Gilly Wong says all organisers should learn a lesson and “clearly explain the restrictions in the contract and possible risks” when promoting their events. The Customs and Excise Department is handling complaints under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance. Phew!

Anyone else giving Inter Miami a good kicking? Of course! Lawmaker Kenneth Fok, also vice-president of our city’s Sports Federation and Olympic Committee, describes the visitors’ attitude as disrespectful and unacceptable. His Legislative Council colleague Michael Tien labels the fiasco as a further blow to our city’s reputation for managing major events, coming so soon after thousands of mainland tourists were left stranded at the border following the New Year’s Eve fireworks.

Some clarity is required. It is widely reported the event contract stipulated Messi would play at least 45 minutes unless ill or injured. Clearly, he was injured. Obviously, his club needed to make this public knowledge before kickoff. Certainly, efforts should have been made to stage some sort of PR gesture – a short speech, an appreciative walk around the pitch perimeter, something, anything – to head off the inevitable debacle that ensued.

All eyes are now on Tokyo, where Miami play the final match of their Asian tour this evening. Their star attraction has told media Sunday’s no-show was “bad luck” but he’s feeling fitter now. Oh dear. Look away, Hong Kong fans.

Megastar singer Taylor Swift is in the same city, as it happens, to play four nights at the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome. Hong Kong, to the dismay of many, is not on her agenda. John Lee, acknowledging we must “do better” at bringing top entertainers to town, has called on the Tourism Board and other bureaus to work harder on this issue. The soon-to-be-finished Kai Tak Sports Park – including flagship 50,000-seat main stadium with retractable roof – will help.

Will we finally see the lauded American diva in Hong Kong? With a suitable venue and fresh government resolve, we may yet – in the spirit of Don Vito – make her an offer she can’t refuse.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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