Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi sits on the bench during the friendly football between a Hong Kong XI and Inter Miami AFP / Peter PARKS

Argentine football superstar Lionel Messi is in the middle of a huge controversy after an injury prevented him from playing at a pre-season friendly in Hong Kong on Sunday.

Messi's current club, Inter Miami CF, faced a Hong Kong XI selection from the local league's best players. The friendly match is part of the Major League Soccer (MLS) side's pre-season international tour, which has taken them across Asia.

However, after only playing seven minutes when Inter Miami was thrashed by Saudi Pro League side Al Nassr late last week, Messi was deemed unfit to take to the pitch in Hong Kong. This understandably angered nearly 40,000 fans who turned up to see him play, many for the first time.

The boos resonated from the crowd as they became increasingly more aware that the Argentine would not be playing. The 36-year-old is said to have been diagnosed with a hamstring injury, and sat on the bench for the duration of the match which his team won convincingly, 4-1.

Fans were understandably upset about Messi's no-show

According to the BBC, the Hong Kong Stadium was nearly at full capacity with 38,323 attendees. The spectators reportedly paid about £101 or HK$1,000 on average for a ticket to see the friendly clash.

As expected, they were livid and started calling for a refund when Messi did not play.

To make matters worse, another big-name player, Uruguayan star Luis Suarez, was also unavailable due to a knee injury. Both he and Messi are FC Barcelona legends, and have since reunited at Inter Miami.

Suarez's absence was also a major disappointment, but no one thought that Messi would not come in even for the closing minutes of the game. By the second half, fans were already chanting "we want Messi", but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

After the full-time whistle was blown, Inter Miami co-owner and a legend in his own right, David Beckham, took the mic to thank the fans. However, instead of a warm reception, his speech was drowned out by boos and protests.

The issue could become a legal matter

According to the Hong Kong government, Messi had been contracted to play at least 45 minutes. Kevin Yeung, Hong Kong's secretary for culture, sports and tourism, also revealed that Inter Miami was not forthcoming about the situation regarding the Argentine's fitness.

He said that Hong Kong government officials were repeatedly assured that Messi would play. In fact, the match went on with the same expectation, and they were only informed about Messi's injury ten minutes before the match ended.

Yeung said: "We immediately requested them to explore other remedies, such as Messi appearing on the field to interact with his fans and receiving the trophy. Unfortunately, as you all see, this did not work out."

Hong Kong Inter Miami Fans
Fans in Hong Kong were furious after Lionel Messi sat out a friendly there on Sunday AFP / Peter PARKS

The government has demanded an explanation from the event organisers, Tatler Asia. The group was reportedly set to be paid HK$15 million (£1.5m) for the event plus an additional HK$1 million for the venue.

In light of the controversy and Messi's no-show, Tatler Asia has reportedly "decided to officially withdraw its application for... the 16 million Hong Kong dollars government grant".

They claimed that they were unaware that both Messi and Suarez were not fit to play prior to kick-off, and that the decision was taken by Inter Miami's medical team.

"Tatler Asia deeply regrets the disappointing ending to what was an exciting occasion," Michel Lamuniere, chairman and CEO, said.

What will happen to the rest of the pre-season tour?

Inter manager Gerardo Martino apologised on behalf of the club for disappointing the fans. However, he reiterated that it was a medical decision and the safety of the players is their top priority.

"If there was a way they could have played even a little while we would have done it, but there was too much risk involved," he said.

Meanwhile, Inter Miami has arrived in Tokyo, where they are scheduled to continue their pre-season tour. They are set to face Japanese club Vissel Kobe in Tokyo on Wednesday, and Messi gave fans hope that he may be able to play.

He attended a news conference on Tuesday, saying that he is feeling better. "The truth is that I feel very good compared to a few days ago," Messi said, without confirming if he will play or not. "Depending on how that (training) goes. And if I'm honest, I still don't know if I will be able to or not. But I feel much better and I really want to be able to do it."

Messi also offered an explanation for the Hong Kong disaster: "The truth is that it was bad luck that I couldn't (play) on the day of the Hong Kong match." He added that the discomfort made it difficult for him to play.

"It's a shame because I always want to participate, I want to be there, and even more so when it comes to these games when we travel so far and people are so excited to see our matches."

Inter Miami's tour has so far been disappointing both for the fans and for the players. They won only one of five matches thus far, and have been outscored by 12-7 goals.