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Inter Miami's Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and teammates sit on the substitute bench during the match. Image Credit: Reuters

The much-hyped Lionel Messi appearance in Hong Kong intended to lift the city's spirits ended with boos and jeers on Sunday as the Argentinian World Cup winner sat out his team's friendly with a local team.

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Stadium announcers were drowned out after the final whistle of the match between Inter Miami and the Hong Kong XI by the noise of a disappointed crowd. Spectators booed the club's players as they collected their trophy and jeered David Beckham, co-owner of the US team, when he tried to give a speech.

Messi was on the bench for the entire match, during which some of the more than 38,000 spectators chanted "refund, refund."

The Hong Kong government said it was "extremely disappointed" with the organizer's arrangement and it might deduct its sponsorship because of Messi's failure to play. The event received HK$15 million ($1.9 million) in matching funds and HK$1 million in venue grants, it said in a statement.

In a press conference after the game, Inter Miami coach Gerardo Martino acknowledged fans' disappointment and said the risk of further injury prevented both Messi and Uruguayan star Luis Suarez from playing. Martino had said before the game that the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner would play "as many minutes as possible."

Messi's non-appearance will add to the problems Hong Kong faces in trying to restore its reputation as a world-class center, in the wake of a crackdown on dissent and strict pandemic curbs. Inter Miami's visit comes after music acts Coldplay and Taylor Swift decided to skip the city on their Asian tours, choosing rival Singapore instead.

Football fans paid as much as HK$4,880 ($624) for seats at the game and tickets sold out within an hour in December. A Saturday training session almost packed the stadium to capacity, with at least 10 fans trying to invade the pitch to get close to Messi. The US team won Sunday's match 4-1.

Inter Miami's visit is part of a series of efforts by officials to create a buzz in the city and boost spending. Hong Kong's reopening from Covid isolation has been marred by China's economic slowdown and high borrowing costs, with the local property and stock markets plunging.

Lawmakers had quizzed Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee over the city's failure to lure big acts since lifting its strict pandemic controls. Lee said he and his officials would "work hard" to bring in stars such as Swift, adding that the city needed to do better on major venues.

One of the next major international sporting events in the city is the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament on April 5-7.