Sports bosses in China have cancelled two friendly matches featuring world champions Argentina, after their star man Lionel Messi failed to turn out for his club in a Hong Kong exhibition match.
Argentina had announced a tour in China from March 18 to 26, during which it was to face Nigeria in Hangzhou and Ivory Coast in Beijing.
But last week a high-profile friendly between Inter Miami and a select XI in Hong Kong sparked jeers and calls for refunds, after Messi did not take to the field, citing injury.
Some nationalist politicians and outlets have interpreted the no-show in the 4-1 Inter Miami win – and Messi's subsequent appearance at a similar match in Japan – as a snub to China, without offering evidence.
"Beijing does not plan, for the moment, to organise the match in which Lionel Messi was to participate," the Beijing Football Association, which oversees football in the capital, said in a press release Saturday.
The Hangzhou match had already been cancelled on Friday evening.
"Given the reasons that everyone knows, according to the competent authorities, the conditions for the event to take place are not met," said the Hangzhou Sports Bureau.
Widely considered the best player of his generation, Messi is a highly marketable sportsman who people around the world will pay top dollar to see, even in the twilight of his trophy-laden career.
Spectators who had paid upwards of 1,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$125) to see the 36-year-old in the southern Chinese city chanted "Refund!" when he sat out the match, gave thumbs-down signs and drowned out the team's co-owner David Beckham with jeers as he tried to thank the crowd.
The Hong Kong government demanded an explanation from the match's organisers, Tatler Asia.
Tatler has since promised spectators a 50-percent refund.
Just days after the no-show, however, the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner played 30 minutes of a friendly match in Japan – causing outrage and accusations that he had singled out China.
Messi has said it was "bad luck" that he could not play and that he hoped to return to the city.
The cancellation of the matches in China is a headache for the Argentine Football Federation (AFA), which considers the Asian giant a strategic market.
In June 2023, Argentina played a friendly in Beijing during a visit that resulted in lucrative contracts with local companies.