Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Hong Kong uproar, Messi injured and just one win: Inside Inter Miami’s Asian tour

By the time Inter Miami took off on an around-the-world tour, the club’s preseason had already gotten off to a less-than-ideal start. Facundo Farías, one of the top young talents on the team, had torn his ACL in a scoreless preseason opener in El Salvador. Then, Inter Miami dropped a 1-0 result to FC Dallas at the Cotton Bowl.

Three days later, they boarded a 15-and-a-half-hour flight from South Florida to Riyadh, but there would be little reprieve on the other side of the world.

In Saudi Arabia, Inter Miami would face two of the best teams it would see in all of 2024, but be denied the chance of being at the center of the likely-final meeting between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The club would play in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd in Hong Kong, but without Messi, creating a veritable international incident with fallout that’s still fully unfolding. They would reach markets relatively untouched by MLS, like Japan, but fail to impress as a team in most of them, finishing the tour with one win in six attempts, and with significant injury concerns surrounding two of its oldest, most famous and most important players.

By the time the team returned to the U.S., a suboptimal start had morphed into legitimate concern about whether an MLS “super team” would be as dominant as some thought.

The Athletic was along for the ride.

Stop 1: Riyadh

Outside the Kingdom Arena, a stream of headlights and cacophony of horns stretching down the road made it clear that there had been plenty of interest in a preseason contest that fell far short of expectations.

The second of Miami’s two games in Saudi Arabia, against Al Nassr, was supposed to have featured one last Messi vs. Ronaldo matchup. It didn’t work out that way. Ronaldo was ruled out after suffering an injury within days of Miami boarding its flight to Riyadh. Messi, too, had been held out for all but the last seven minutes due to his own injury concerns.

Al Nassr smashed Inter Miami 6-0, adding insult to the team’s previous 4-3 loss to Al Hilal, the very team that was wooing Messi before the Argentine settled on Inter Miami.


Messi vs. Ronaldo? Saudi League vs. MLS? In Riyadh, it was no contest.

The games didn’t feel like preseason matches. There was pride on the line for the Saudi fans. Against Al Nassr, fans in the section behind the goal joked with each other not to chant for Messi (though they eventually cheered him when he came on for a cameo).

The result was lambasted as a sign that Inter Miami was in horribly poor form. The mistakes and poor defensive structure were obvious. But it also wasn’t too different from some other preseason games I’ve seen from MLS teams in more than a decade covering the league.

In truth, the lesson of the night felt bigger than just one team. It was a warning sign for MLS.

The Saudi Pro League, like MLS, is looking for leverage points to prove its quality. But the night before the Al Nassr game, Tata Martino seemed to sense what might be coming.

“Which team has the best chance of competing? (Which is) better? One that has three designated players and three young designated players, or one that has eight players under the age of 30 at a very good level competing in the league?” Martino asked, before rattling off a list of in-prime stars who had recently left careers in top European leagues to sign for one of Miami’s two Saudi opponents.

“MLS does not have that possibility,” he said, referencing MLS’s myriad roster rules and cap limitations.

Martino at Inter Miami’s match in Hong Kong (PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)


In 2025, MLS teams will have a chance to showcase themselves in the Club World Cup, Martino pointed out. The results in Saudi highlighted how much deeper the teams who will be at that tournament are than top-heavy MLS sides, and laid the argument for change.

The two losses also did little to bolster Inter Miami’s sporting reputation, and some confusion from the game against Al Nassr hinted at what was to come.

Before the game, a Miami Herald report indicated that Messi would not play. He was experiencing discomfort, had an MRI and was being held out as a precaution due to an adductor issue. Messi later emerged on the field with the team, seemingly ready to play. Inter Miami tweeted and then deleted a lineup graphic without his name, then tweeted out a new graphic with him listed on the bench. In the 83rd minute, he came on for a short appearance.

Still, a Messi injury set off alarms for its impact on the early portion of Miami’s season, and was the primary talking point regardless of how limited his involvement was.

Just across the street from the stadium after the game, a Ferris wheel was lit up purple, a Las Vegas-like sphere rotated through different images and a roller coaster rumbled by every few minutes in the Boulevard City fair as part of the Riyadh Spring festival. I jumped in the back of a rideshare, and the driver named Saad turned to assess the American who was in the back of his car. He spoke no English. I don’t speak Arabic. There was just one word needed for him to understand where I was coming from.

“Messi,” I said, pointing to the stadium behind me.

He turned back at me, smiled and nodded. Guiding the steering wheel with his knees as we took off down the road, he pulled out his phone and started typing into a translation app, then showed me the text.

“Tonight showed that Ronaldo made the right choice to come to Saudi and Messi the wrong one to go to America,” it read. “The world will come to Saudi.”

He looked into the rearview mirror. I laughed. He smiled and nodded and then started typing again. Our conversation would carry on like that for the 31-minute ride; him typing away while I nervously watched the road in front of him, playing back my answers on my own phone in Arabic.

I’ve used soccer to connect with cab drivers in Argentina and Qatar, in London, Chicago and Germany. This conversation felt different because the talk turned to MLS, a league still earning its place around the world, and which rarely comes up in moments like this.

It’s the gateway Messi’s presence creates. In Hong Kong, it created a stir in an altogether different fashion.

Messi and Inter Miami were ever-present in Hong Kong (VCG/VCG via Getty Images))

Stop 2: Hong Kong

Miami’s first two days in Hong Kong were the most celebratory portion of the preseason tour – and really, the portion that felt most like preseason. Fanfare and celebrity greeted Inter Miami’s arrival. Media and flowers welcomed the team at the Hong Kong airport, and fans did likewise at the hotel.

“We have to observe the physical situation of each of our players,” Martino said in a press conference just a few hours after getting off the plane, sitting alongside Luis Suarez in front of 150 media members. “But we have the expectation that Leo will play as much time as possible.”

That answer seemed to settle nerves about Messi’s availability.

A day later, the team arrived at Hong Kong Stadium for an open training session. It felt like a game day, with streets closed to traffic blocks away from the venue. Fans streamed in wearing a mix of Inter Miami pink and black, Argentina sky blue-and-white and FC Barcelona blue-and-garnet shirts.

Inside, Miami co-owner David Beckham made his first appearance of the tour, getting huge cheers as he emerged with owners Jorge and Jose Mas. The crowd screamed as Messi jogged onto the field and had a simple touch on the ball to start training. Messi jogged with the team and took part early in training, but was held out of the remainder until a collection of children came onto the field for a clinic with players.

The celebratory feel around the friendly — which was being played against a Hong Kong all-star team, of sorts — continued the next day. There was a pregame ceremony to celebrate the upcoming year of the dragon, and the crowds gushed for Beckham again as he was shown autographing the jersey worn by singer G.E.M.

Something started to feel off as game time approached. The lineup was announced and none of the big names — Messi, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and Suarez — were starters. Messi, though, was announced as being on the bench. And while Busquets and Alba came out initially with the substitutes, Messi and Suarez walked out closer to kickoff. Messi was in a pink hoodie, black track pants and white sneakers – indications he’d play no part.

The game was played at a fairly reserved pace. The field seemed heavy and slow. The teams went into the break tied, 1-1. Messi emerged at halftime in the same gear, an even clearer indicator he was not going to play.

Even as Miami took a 4-1 lead, the attention was on the star who sat on the bench while the substitutes warmed up. They started to chant Messi’s name. The boos started in the last 10 minutes of the game. Chants of “refund” echoed around the stadium and the vitriol hit a high when the final whistle sounded.

In the minutes after the game, Beckham took the microphone to try to earn back some goodwill. The fans’ boos overwhelmed his message. Beckham looped around the stadium waving at fans. He hugged a pitch invader and gave an autograph.

That anger in the stadium lingered as the team took part in an awkward trophy ceremony. Eventually, they left the pitch. The mood never turned.

Hong Kong Fans react to Messi’s confirmed absence from the game (PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)

There was no country out of the entire trip that felt more excited for Miami’s visit than Hong Kong. In the train stations, there were signs promoting the game and Miami’s stars. When I walked out to the famous Victoria Harbor, I took in the panoramic scene only to scan over my left shoulder and see a massive billboard of the Miami players on it. Multiple Adidas stores had huge Inter Miami displays in their entrances. On the way to the airport, a cab passed me wrapped in the pink advertisement for the game.

The hype made for a bigger letdown.

“We understand the disappointment of the fans that filled the stadium today about the absence of Leo and Luis Suarez,” Martino said in the opening statement of his press conference. “This decision was made together with the medical staff. We ran a lot of risk of aggravating their injuries and that’s why they couldn’t be in the game.

“We apologize, but I hope you can understand that, if we had a chance to get them to play for a while, we would have done it. But we were taking serious risks and that is why, together with the medical staff, we made this decision.”



Messi accused of ‘deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong’

This is the double-edged sword of promoting a star like Messi. It was a preseason game. The team had to think about games that count. Messi is, in fact, human, and he’s 36 years old. He is not going to play in every game. Every season there will be a Soldier Field game, where a sold-out crowd gets Inter Miami and not Messi. Promoters will likely now approach games with a bit more caution.

Still, it felt like the fans in Hong Kong were blindsided. Martino emphasized Messi had been evaluated that morning, and that the decision for him not to play was made that day. That decision never reached the fans in the stadium, at least not until it was made apparent when the game was nearly over.

That night, the Hong Kong government put out a statement expressing disappointment that Messi did not play.

“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 statement read, in part. “(The Major Sports Events Committee) will take follow-up actions with the organizer according to the terms and conditions, which includes reducing the amount of funding as a result of Messi not playing the match.”

The problem only grew from there.

A mural in Japan promoted Inter Miami’s arrival (PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

Stop 3: Tokyo

By the time Inter Miami arrived for the fourth game of its Asian tour, the team had covered more than 13,000 miles in the air flying from Miami to Riyadh, Riyadh to Hong Kong and now to Tokyo. They were playing in their third time zone in less than a week. Internal clocks were messed up. People yearned to be home. The fact that the upcoming game against Vissel Kobe wouldn’t be streamed on MLS Season Pass left the feeling of an underwhelming ending (the game was streamed on Inter Miami’s website).



Inter Miami’s game vs. Vissel Kobe will not stream on Apple TV

If the confusion and boos in Hong Kong had caused any disturbance within the team, it didn’t show from the outside. Messi made a rare appearance at a press conference in Japan, sitting alone on stage on a tall stool and saying it was “a shame” he wasn’t able to play and that he hoped to go back one day to participate in a game there. He also acknowledged the miles were taking their toll and the team was ready to get home.

Inter Miami players and staff seemed mostly in good spirits in the portion of practice that was open to the media that day. Fans encircled the field and players interacted with a few fans who had access inside the ropes. In the team hotel, there were galas and reunions with another former Barcelona teammate, Andres Iniesta, a former Vissel Kobe star whose company was promoting the friendly.

On game night, around 28,000 fans showed up despite cold temperatures and were treated to a half-hour of Messi. Another of Miami’s big names, Busquets, left early in the game with an ankle injury after a harsh tackle — another hit to absorb for Miami’s roster at the start of a long season. Despite the adductor issue that had held him out in Hong Kong three days prior, Messi was active and changed the way Inter Miami looked on the field – the best since the first game in Riyadh. He even broke through alone into the box with a golden chance to score, only to be denied by the keeper.

The game ended and the teams seemed a bit surprised when they were informed there would be a penalty kick shootout to determine a winner. The crowd was disappointed when Messi didn’t take a spot kick, but Vissel Kobe would eventually win in penalties, 4-3.

Messi raised Inter Miami’s level in his 30-minute substitute appearance (Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

Officially, Inter Miami left its Asia tour with a 1-2-1 record, with a penalty loss.

In the postgame mixed zone a few feet away from where the team buses idled, surrounded by TV cameras and microphones, Martino fielded a few questions about the game and one question about Messi’s no-show in Hong Kong. It was the only indication that the issue would grow even larger because of Messi’s 30 minutes in Tokyo.

Miami left the stadium and went straight to an airport to go home. In the air, things intensified.

The Chinese state-run Global Times published an editorial in the hours after the game in which it said Messi’s appearance in Tokyo “magnified these doubts and suspicions on the integrity of Inter Miami and Messi himself.” Earlier that day, Tatler XFest, the organizer of the Hong Kong game, announced it would refund 50 percent of the ticket price for fans.

“Our aspiration was to create an iconic moment in support of the government’s efforts to remind the world how relevant and exciting Hong Kong is,” the organizers wrote in a statement. “That dream is broken today for us and all those who bought tickets to see Messi on the pitch.”

Later in the week, two Argentina friendlies scheduled to be played in China were canceled, owing to the ongoing dispute about Messi’s no-show.

Inter Miami’s tour was a massive commercial opportunity for the team and for the league, a chance to capitalize on Messi’s presence in the league to spread awareness around its brand. And in a sense, it succeeded; despite the disastrous fallout in Hong Kong, it was still a financial success. That this tour will be remembered for its failures stings. Typically, preseasons aren’t remembered at all.

Next week, Inter Miami will turn to the official competitions and hope to push this tour to that recess where preseason games are supposed to live: out of sight, and out of mind.

But only winning can accomplish that.

 (Top photo: Mohammed Saad/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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