Messi mania hits Hong Kong as thousands flock to Miami training

By AFP   February 3, 2024 | 04:32 am PT
Tens of thousands of football fans turned out to see Lionel Messi train with his Inter Miami teammates in Hong Kong on Saturday, as "Messi mania" took hold of the city.

Police closed off streets around the Hong Kong Stadium as fans flocked to catch sight of the Argentina superstar, the greatest player of his generation, ahead of a match on Sunday.

Hours before Inter Miami strode onto the pitch for an open training session, expectant fans were forming long queues outside the 40,000-capacity venue, chanting the World Cup-winning captain's name.

The Major League Soccer club is co-owned by David Beckham, who also put in an appearance to huge roars from an almost full house.

But the roof was nearly blown off a few minutes later by the ovation the 36-year-old Messi received as he emerged to join his teammates on the pitch for a gentle workout.

The eight-time Ballon d'Or winner spent much of the hour-long session doing stretches as he protected a niggling hamstring injury, though he did join 80 lucky Hong Kong schoolchildren for a kickabout during a coaching clinic that followed.

Soon after, Beckham took charge of teaching the kids some skills.

But it was Messi that the thousands of fans had mainly come to see, ahead of a friendly against a Hong Kong Select XI on Sunday.

"It's the first time in my life I see Messi," said 17-year-old Chinese student Li Weiyi, who had traveled from Shenzhen, across the border in mainland China.

"I am feeling very excited. He means a lot to me. He brought me to the football world, he made me love football."

Most fans wore blue-and-white-striped Argentina or pink Inter Miami shirts.

'The best ever'

"He is very skillful, very enjoyable to watch him play," said Sally Liu, a 28-year-old student from Hong Kong who was sporting a T-shirt commemorating Messi and Argentina's 2022 World Cup win in Qatar.

"He is playing now in Miami so I will not have many chances to watch him in the future. This is my last chance.

"He is the best ever. I cried when they became world champions."

On Friday, hundreds had gathered outside the team hotel in the south of the city hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero.

A traditional junk boat was cruising around the harbor with Messi's face plastered across sails in the pink colors of Inter Miami.

Tickets for Sunday's match sold out in an hour when they went on sale in December, and sports retailers reported that Messi shirts had been flying off the shelves.

Messi has been nursing a tight hamstring on the team's hectic tour, which will have seen them play six games in 19 days ahead of the MLS season starting on Feb. 21.

He came on only for the last few minutes of a 6-0 friendly defeat to Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia on Thursday night.

"We will assess each of the players after training because we have been playing a lot of pre-season games," Miami head coach Gerardo Martino told reporters.

"The aspiration is that Leo (Messi) can play as many minutes as possible."

Martino is also desperate to register a first win on Miami's globe-trotting pre-season tour.

They began with a 0-0 draw in El Salvador against the national side, then lost 1-0 at fellow MLS team FC Dallas.

Miami traveled to Saudi Arabia last week and lost 4-3 to Al Hilal before the chastening loss to Al Nassr.

The tour concludes with a friendly against Vissel Kobe in Japan on Wednesday.

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