China's capital Beijing became the latest city to call off an Argentina friendly on Saturday, as the fallout from star player Lionel Messi sitting out a highly publicized game in Hong Kong last week with injury intensifies.
Beijing's football association made the announcement, halting a friendly between Argentina and Ivory Coast, a day after Hangzhou sports authorities also canceled a friendly between Argentina and Nigeria.
"Beijing does not plan, for the moment, to organize the match in which Lionel Messi was to participate," the Beijing Football Association said in a statement to local media.
Why is Messi in Asia, and what's all the fuss about?
Messi is touring Asia with his relatively new club, Inter Miami — owned by former England midfielder David Beckham — and his national team for what was meant to be a series of money-spinning friendlies before the start of the Major League Soccer season in the US later this month.
However, an injury has limited his playing time for Inter Miami, and his failure to appear at all in a friendly in Hong Kong last week prompted a chorus of jeering from angry fans in the stadium and many more complaints online in China.
The organizers of the February 4 game in Hong Kong, Tatler Asia, announced a 50% refund on tickets, some of which cost fans in excess of 5,000 Hong Kong dollars (roughly US $640 or €600).
The mood soured further still a few days later when Messi was able to come off the substitutes' bench and play the last 30 minutes of a friendly in Tokyo, Japan.
This prompted quesions on whether Messi had been snubbing Hong Kong — including from some nationalist Chinese politicians and publications — and led to the term "medical miracle" trending on Chinese social media.
Messi a major brand in China
The Argentine star had enjoyed a large and passionate following in China until the ill-fated trip, punctuated by a successful friendly in Beijing with his national team last year. He's also a spokesman for a series of major Chinese brands like Huawei, Mengniu, and Tencent.
It was not clear whether Messi, now 36, would have been available to play in the subsequent games in Hangzhou and Beijing. Nor was it immediately clear whether replacement fixtures might be arranged, or where.
The national teams of Nigeria and Ivory Coast would have both had to travel to Asia for the matches at relatively short notice, with those countries playing each other on Sunday in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations.
msh/wd (AFP, dpa, Reuters)