The Lionel Messi experience in MLS ended 2023 in downbeat fashion, and ’24 is starting even uglier, spotlighting the risks for the league and Inter Miami in counting on the Argentinian superstar for sustained, large-scale business growth.
After injuries to Messi and a six-match winless streak marred the conclusion of Inter Miami’s season last year following an initial surge of fan interest, a preseason tour by the club has revealed more problems.
An ambitious and still-ongoing trip that has included stops in El Salvador, Dallas, Saudi Arabia, and most recently Hong Kong has generated just one win and a tie in five matches. More troubling, a Sunday match in Hong Kong featured fans booing and demanding ticket refunds as both Messi and teammate Luis Suárez did not play due to further injuries.
Tatler XFEST Hong Kong, organizer of the match, is now withdrawing from roughly $2 million in government grants related to the event. Messi had been a key fixture in prematch advertising, and on Friday, Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said Messi was “likely” to play in Hong Kong, further heightening fan expectations.
“The [Hong Kong] government, as well as football fans, are extremely disappointed that Messi could neither play in the friendly match, nor explain to the fans in person upon request,” Hong Kong officials said. “The way that the organizer and Inter Miami handled the situation could not meet the expectations of the fans who showed strong support to Messi, especially those visitors who came all the way here for the match.”
The preseason tour further spotlights load management issues that have increasingly become a prevalent concern in soccer, drawing public remarks from other icons in the sport such as French superstar Kylian Mbappé. For Inter Miami, the matches will precede a 34-game MLS regular season, as well as planned appearances in the Leagues Cup and Concacaf Champions Cup—adding to the pressure on the 36-year-old Messi and whether his body will hold up to the demand.
Two more matches are scheduled for the current Inter Miami preseason tour: Wednesday in Tokyo against Japan’s Vissel Kobe, and back in Miami on Feb. 15 against Argentinian club Newell’s Old Boys.