The stands at Hong Kong Stadium were packed with 40,000 people and, every once in a while, the chants would break out; starting with just one section, a murmur, and then echoing around the whole arena.
“Messi! Messi! Messi!”
The Argentine star sat on the bench. And, if we needed a reminder that, despite the sold-out crowd, this was still just a preseason game, Messi stayed there.
Inter Miami’s star forward missed his first game of the club’s preseason tour, a 4-1 Inter Miami win over a team of Hong Kong all-stars. His absence was not advertised before the game; Messi was listed on the team sheet and was announced as a substitute — to a huge ovation – before kick off. He also took part in the open training session the day before the match, even if he did not play the short-side games during that session.
Messi was held out due to inflammation in his adductor, which the club has been monitoring since before the second game in Saudi Arabia and for which Messi had an MRI scan ahead of the Al Nassr fixture. Messi was evaluated on Sunday morning at the team hotel, according to coach Tata Martino, and the decision was made not to risk him.
Messi was in a pink hoodie, black pants and white tennis shoes when he emerged on to the pitch pre-match on Sunday and stayed in his sneakers after coming out at half-time. The crowd began to sense Messi might not play when substitutes got up to warm up midway through the second half and he was not among them.
The Messi chants echoed through the stadium. Then “We Want Messi” as the game approached the 70th minute. Messi stayed planted on the bench. The crowd then booed loudly every time an Inter Miami substitute not named Messi entered the field and, finally, chanted for a refund.
Forward Luis Suarez also did not play, either. Suarez was held out due to inflammation in his knee which occurred after the second match in Saudi Arabia. Once the game had concluded, much of the crowd booed when Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham tried to address the stadium, and then booed again when Inter Miami received its trophy.
Beckham, who had been cheered heartily in the pre-game festivities, circled the field waving at fans, most of whom waved back and cheered. He also stopped security from hauling away a pitch invader, hugged him (as the crowd cheered) and signed his shirt.
Martino opened his press conference by saying the team was flattered by the support they had received from fans in Hong Kong and said he understood why the fans reacted the way they did to Messi and Luis Suarez not playing.
“We understand the disappointment of the fans that filled the stadium today about the absence of Leo and Luis Suarez,” Martino said. “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 understand the disappointment that people have.
“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.”
Three days ago, Messi played just the final seven minutes of Inter Miami’s 6-0 loss to Al Nassr. Ahead of that game, Messi had felt some discomfort in training and underwent an MRI as a precaution. He was initially not expected to play against Al Nassr before making that cameo appearance.
Martino said the medical staff has been evaluating Messi day by day since then and believe the injury will continue to improve, but the risk was too high to play him on Sunday.
“It happens that we also have the obligation to look at the beginning of our league,” Martino said. “And when we sat down with the medical staff, they stated that it was very risky for this footballer to be able to play today.”
Despite Messi not playing, Inter Miami picked up its first victory of this international tour, one that has been a bit of a different vibe for most of the players on the squad.
“These aren’t your regular preseason games that I’ve played in the past where you play in your training gear at times against all the MLS teams,” said eight-year MLS veteran Julian Gressel, who signed with Inter Miami this winter as a free agent.
That’s a bit of an understatement.
Inter Miami has now played a game against El Salvador’s national team at the Estadio Cuscatlán, a game against FC Dallas in front of more than 32,000 fans at the Cotton Bowl, two friendlies in Saudi Arabia in front of sold-out crowds against Al Hilal and Al Nassr and a match against a team of all-stars in front of 40,000 in Hong Kong.
Only one of those games was won.
In particular, Thursday night’s 6-0 loss to Al Nassr provoked questions about how much value one should associate with preseason. Consider that Inter Miami is just three weeks into preseason after a month-long offseason. The team’s two Saudi Arabian opponents sit first and second in the Saudi Pro League and boast rosters that would be the envy of any MLS team.
Every MLS preseason produces surprising scorelines and win-loss records that hardly correlate to the regular season. In the summers, European-based teams have come to the United States and lost their preseason friendlies against MLS teams. Rarely is that held up as an example of MLS catching the Premier League.
However, when a team has Lionel Messi and three other world-class players who, between them, have multiple Champions League, Copa America and World Cup trophies to their name, expectations change. When preseason games are being aired on Apple TV and billed as international events, the discourse around the game is apt to change. When venues in locations half the world away from the team’s home venue are sold out and going wild for a training session, as the Hong Kong Stadium was on Saturday before the game, the belief that Inter Miami needs to win increases, even in games that don’t count.
The scene was much the same on Sunday for this latest Inter Miami preseason contest. Fans filled the streets around Hong Kong Stadium hours before the game. Long lines of traffic forced people to get out of their cabs and walk blocks to their destinations. Police shut down streets to ease the flow.
Before the game started, multiple well-known pop acts performed on the field. The crowd roared pregame when movie stars and singers were shown mingling with Beckham pitchside.
It very much was not your average preseason game.
Gressel said last week he didn’t think all the hype and pomp around these games was necessarily a bad thing.
“These are real games, and that will bode well going into the season where real games come right away pretty quickly,” Gressel said. “It’s obviously a balance, but we’re trying to grow, to come together as a team and find a way to beat good teams. And eventually, when the time comes late in the season, when we have those (real) games coming up, when they really count — then hopefully we’ll be ready.”
Martino said the team had to be cautious about this last part of the tour, which concludes on February 7 in Japan with a game against Vissel Kobe. While the team had a week to train in Saudi Arabia, they are now flying significant air miles with just three days between games. The team went directly from the stadium in Riyadh to the airport and flew approximately eight hours to Hong Kong.
The day after the game here, they will get on a plane and fly another four hours to Tokyo with just two days to prepare.
“In reality this is an extensive tour. Obviously, at some point, the fatigue is going to start to be felt,” Martino said shortly after arriving in Hong Kong.
The lineup on Sunday in Hong Kong was indicative of the fact that Martino was keen to limit the minutes on the legs of his star players, all of whom are in their mid-30s.
The quartet of former Barcelona stars — Messi, Suarez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba — were named to the bench. The starting lineup included several reserves and younger players. It showed in the first half.
The early portion of the game saw players trying to adjust to a pitch that was playing slow and heavy. The game started to pick up later in the half when Robert Taylor curled in a goal in the 40th minute. But the sloppy mistakes that have plagued Inter Miami this preseason were on display again just three minutes later when homegrown David Ruiz gave the ball away too easily in his defensive third and Inter Miami’s back line struggled to deal with the cross, allowing Hong Kong to equalize.
Inter Miami eventually took over as the all stars swapped out their entire lineup at half-time. Lawson Sunderland scored in the 50th minute, Leo Campana added another six minutes later and Ryan Sailor’s header sealed the outcome.
The headline, however, was that Messi never got off the bench, much to the dismay of the fans in attendance.
The win marked progress, or at least some positivity. But while the results have been far from perfect, the tour has undoubtedly been worthwhile commercially.
The games in Riyadh were played in front of sold-out crowds, just as the training session and game were in Hong Kong. The stands were filled with Inter Miami’s distinctive pink jerseys. At multiple Adidas stores in the city, the front displays were filled with Inter Miami jerseys and shirts. You had to go up to the third floor to find the Manchester United shirts in one store. Billboards around Hong Kong featured Inter Miami players.
The task is finding a way to balance that with the sporting side.
Inter Miami hopes to have center-back Nicolas Freire on the field soon to help some of the issues on their back line, but they clearly have some work to do in other areas of the field, as well. It’s not just the back line that is causing some of the defensive breakdowns.
That was clear again on Sunday, and with a little more than two weeks to go before the regular season opener, Inter Miami will look to get things sorted — first in Tokyo and then, finally, back home in Florida.
“We have had imperfections in the different preseason games, There is no one specific issue,” Martino said on Friday. “Does the team need to win? We always want to win, even if they are preseason games, but undoubtedly if we have to find a time for these things to happen and for results to flag an issue with what is happening on the field, we prefer it to be before the season starts.”
Most importantly, Inter Miami will hope Messi is healthy and on the field once the season starts.
Inter Miami’s preseason provides reality check to global aspirations
(Top photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images)