Tatler Asia gives conflicting account of when it knew Messi would not play in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Football Association head Pui Kwan-kay, meanwhile, on Friday revealed he had rejected an initial offer to host the match after one originally scheduled to take place in mainland China in November was called off, allowing Tatler to later step in.

Tatler Asia has said it only discovered Messi would not play 15 minutes before the game started. Photo: AFP

At a press briefing held in the wake of the game that left fans disappointed, Lamuniere said Messi was among the list of players submitted by the team’s management, adding he was only informed the Argentine star was unfit to play late in the second half of the match.

But, in his interview with The Athletic, Lamuniere said the rest of the first half was spent trying to ask Messi to play, talk or move around the pitch. He added the event was “perfectly organised except for the lack of visibility regarding Messi’s injury, of which we had no idea”.

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Lamuniere added the agreement stipulated that Messi, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez, would play a minimum of 45 minutes unless injured.

Asked whether the absence of Messi and Suarez constituted a breach of the agreement, he only said they were assessing all options and engaging with all partners to discuss possible solutions.

The Post has contacted Tatler Asia for comment.

A spokesman for the Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau said the organiser and Inter Miami should give the public a “reasonable explanation” for the conflicting stories about Messi’s non-appearance on the pitch.

He repeated that the government had been told in the second half of the match that Messi would not play because of injury.

Tatler Asia chairman Michel Lamuniere says the rest of the first half was spent trying to ask Messi to play, talk or move around the pitch. Photo: Sam Tsang

Pui told the Post that he was initially asked to organise the match in Hong Kong, but he turned down the offer after hearing about the US$10 million appearance fee, which he described as “sky-high” and “unreasonable”.

He said he was approached by an agent after the November match involving Inter Miami on the mainland was cancelled because the team could not obtain approval papers. The initial organiser, a Shanghai-based sports company, had paid a US$3 million deposit and wanted someone else to take over.

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“An agent reached out to me before, asking if Hong Kong was interested in taking over, and we would need to pay about US$10 million to the team, though they already paid a US$3 million deposit,” he said.

“But I rejected it immediately, without any further discussion. This is a sky-high price, it cannot be that expensive. We have invited many world-class teams to Hong Kong, but we never paid as much as US$10 million. That was unreasonable to me.”

Hong Kong invited Real Madrid to play in 2003. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

He added Hong Kong only paid €2 million (US$2.2 million) to invite Real Madrid to play in an exhibition match back in 2003, during which their football stars – Zinedine Zidane, Brazil international Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos, David Beckham and Raul- all played on the field.

He said the Hong Kong trip eventually materialised because of the government’s “goodwill to bring joy to its people before Lunar New Year”.

Tatler ended up being the organiser and was in line to receive HK$16 million in government funding.

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“But unfortunately the event ended up like this, and Messi did not even try,” Pui said. “The attitude was very bad indeed.”

Pui added that even he, the chief of the local football association, was given the cold shoulder during the event. He said he was assigned a back-row seat and not given an opportunity to shake hands with the team members on the field.

“They looked down on us,” he said.

He stressed Tatler Asia should bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for the disappointing turn of events.

Although the government did not suffer any losses after Tatler Asia withdrew its application for the HK$16 million grant, the fiasco had brought “an impact that could hardly be resolved with money”, he said.

Lawmaker Johnny Ng Kit-chong, a member of the Legislative Council’s sports panel, said Lamuniere’s contradictory comments were “bizarre”.

He added Tatler Asia should release details of a 50 per cent refund on tickets for the game that it promised it would give to fans.

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“I reckon he should further clarify which of the timings he talked about was accurate,” Ng said. “Even though it does not make a significant difference between the two timings ultimately, it’s still better to have an explanation.”

He said appearance fees were a commercial decision and whether they were considered high or not depended on the organiser’s ability to turn a profit.

Ng added that, although the highly-anticipated match turned into a major disappointment, he did not believe that large-scale events should be taken over by authorities.

He said the government should serve as a facilitator and policymaker, and that its reactions were not as fast as the commercial sector.

Additional reporting by Ambrose Li


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