HONG KONG — Chinese state media, Hong Kong politicians and fans swiftly condemned Argentine player Lionel Messi’s participation in a Japan match on Wednesday after staying on the bench just days earlier in a highly anticipated match in Hong Kong.

Many in the financial hub were dismayed on Sunday when the 36-year-old did not come onto the field during a much hyped Inter Miami match to a sell-out crowd with fans demanding answers and a refund.

Miami head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said Mr. Messi was deemed unfit to play in Sunday’s match in the Hong Kong friendly.

China’s state-controlled Global Times said Mr. Messi’s absence posed many questions on the differential treatment for Hong Kong.

“The match in Hong Kong became the only one in Messi’s six pre-season friendly matches on this trip where he was absent. The situation…has magnified these doubts and suspicions on the integrity of Inter Miami and Messi himself.”

Some mainland fans traveled 12 hours from Xinjiang to Hong Kong to see Mr. Messi, the Global Times wrote, with the disappointment of the government and fans “entirely understandable. The impact of this incident has far exceeded the realm of sports.”

Mr. Messi apologized to his Chinese fans on Weibo, a Chinese platform similar to X, just ahead of the Japan game on Wednesday, saying it was a real shame he was not able to play in Hong Kong due to an injury.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I always want to play… especially in these games where we travel so far and people are excited to see our games. Hopefully we can come back and play a game in Hong Kong,” he wrote in Chinese and Spanish.

The match in Hong Kong drew 40,000 fans, with spectators paying up to nearly HK$5,000 ($640) per ticket. In Tokyo, entire blocks of seating at the Japan National Stadium remained unoccupied, with just 28,614 tickets sold.

Hong Kong’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau said in a statement that, like the fans, it was very disappointed that Mr. Messi could not play in Hong Kong due to injury.

“However three days later, Messi was able to play actively and freely in Japan…the government hopes the organizers and teams can provide reasonable explanations.”

Sports lawmaker Kenneth Fok said the incident “sprinkled salt wounds” on Hong Kong fans, while senior government advisor Regina Ip wrote on X that “Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter-Miami and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculate snub to Hong Kong.” — Reuters