Inter Miami's Lionel Messi, center, looks on after the first half of the friendly football match between Hong Kong Team and US Inter Miami CF at the Hong Kong Stadium in Hong Kong, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. Messi remains hurt for InterMiami, which dropped another game. (AP Photo/Louise Delmotte, File)
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TOKYO — It’s all been very messy.

We’re talking about Lionel Messi and Inter Miami’s global tour of exhibition games where the main show has been Argentina’s 2022 World Cup-winning captain.

The matches are about promotion and marketing, hoping to build a new brand by using stars like Messi and Uruguayan Luis Suarez. Instead, the tour is getting mostly bad PR, and results that have not been much better in matches that have stretched from El Salvador, through Dallas, into Saudi Arabia, and then Hong Kong on Sunday.

The next stop is Tokyo’s National Stadium on Wednesday against Vissel Kobe, and a wrap-up match on Feb. 16 in Florida against Newell’s Old Boys — Messi’s boyhood club in Argentina, and the club that might be his final destination before retiring.

Through five games, Inter Miami has been outscored 12-7 and won only once. And that was Sunday in Hong Kong, where a 4-1 victory over the local team was overshadowed by angry fans holding up signs demanding a refund and booing since neither Messi nor Suarez played — both out injured and aging.

Messi is 36 and Suarez is 37, and both are more and more subject to nagging injuries.

“The marketing hype in promoting the event to global fans creates high expectations, coupled with government subsidy of the event,” John Grady, a sports law professor at the University of South Carolina, told The Associated Press. “This also raises the expectations that marquee players will appear as advertised.”

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Even though fans know the games are for practice, and meaningless in the standings, they still choose to pay high prices and attend. As the phrase goes in Latin — caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware.”

“As more football teams recruit elite talent with large followings, including on social media, it creates a situation where non-appearance causes fan outrage and results in a public relations headaches,” Grady added.

Inter Miami coach Gerardo Martino apologized for Messi’s absence after Sunday’s Hong Kong match. Fans who saw practice on Saturday at least saw the Argentina captain in a kick-around, with Miami co-owner David Beckham also on the field.

“We understand the disappointment of the fans for the absence of Leo (Messi) and Luis Suarez,” Martino said. “We understand a lot of fans are very disappointed and we ask for their forgiveness. We wish we could have sent Leo and Luis on for at least a while but the risk was too big.”

Messi came on for the last seven minutes in the 6-0 loss at Al-Nassr — one of the two matches in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — as Inter Miami prepares for its MLS season opener on Feb. 22.

It’s anyone’s guess if Messi will play on Wednesday in Japan, and if so, how much. Martino will certainly be under pressure to use him some, but Messi is sure to have the final say.

Inter Miami is to practice on Tuesday on the outskirts of Tokyo with snow in the forecast. Wednesday calls for sunny skies but temperatures at game time around freezing.

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