The Argentina Football Association has announced exhibition matches against El Salvador and Nigeria in the US to replace a tour of China that has been canceled in the wake of captain Lionel Messi failing to take part in a pre-season match in Hong Kong for Major League Soccer (MLS) club Inter Miami.

Argentina will take on El Salvador on March 22 at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field and Nigeria four days later at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The two matches had been scheduled to be played in China, with Hangzhou hosting Argentina’s clash with Nigeria and Beijing staging its game against Ivory Coast, as warmup fixtures for the quadrennial Copa America in June.

However, the Chinese Football Association canceled both games after a perceived snub towards Hong Kong and China by Messi during Inter Miami’s Asia tour earlier this month.

Inter Miami’s match in Hong Kong on February 4 was one of four played in three countries across Asia as part of the club’s first-ever international pre-season tour, sandwiched between stops in Saudi Arabia (versus Al-Hilal and Al Nassr) and Japan (Vissel Kobe).

However, Messi’s failure to play in the much-hyped friendly match against a put-together Hong Kong team due to an apparent groin injury sparked outrage across China, with fans demanding refunds and the Hong Kong government stepping in to criticize the club.

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The situation was compounded three days later when he was able to play in Japan.

Around 40,000 fans attended the sold-out fixture, with some traveling 12 hours from Xianjing to Hong Kong and paying nearly HK$5,000 ($640) per ticket with the expectation that they would see Messi in action due to his presence being heavily advertised during the run-up to the match.

Tatler Asia, the organizer of the match, then confirmed it would refund fans 50% of the price of their tickets.

Inter Miami had hoped the tour would be the perfect preparation for their upcoming 2024 MLS campaign, while also giving their brand an international boost with Messi at the helm to ensure commercial success. However, it was the drama that ensued after the Hong Kong match that derailed the ambitions of the trip and threatened wider commercial implications for the club, the Argentinian national team, and their talisman going forward.

Chants during the game appealing for Messi to get on the pitch turned to boos when Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham made his post-game speech.

In a statement after the match, the Hong Kong government said: “Regarding Messi not playing the match today, the government, as well as all football fans, are extremely disappointed about the organizers’ arrangement. The organizers owe all football fans an explanation.”

Meanwhile, Messi’s subsequent appearance on the field in Japan a few days later threatened to escalate the situation into a diplomatic situation, with China’s state-controlled Global Times media printing an op-ed that said the incident “has gone far beyond the realms of sports.”

It said: “The match in Hong Kong became the only one in Messi’s six pre-season friendly matches on this trip where he was absent. The situation … has magnified these doubts and suspicions on the integrity of Inter Miami and Messi himself.”

Messi tried to calm the situation with a post earlier this week (February 7), describing the incident as “regrettable” and that he hoped to return to Hong Kong in the future.

However, the situation has continued to dominate Chinese social media and has so far shown no signs of slowing down, leading the CFA to cancel Argentina's tour.

Argentina will open this year’s Copa America in the US against Canada or Trinidad and Tobago on June 20 at Atlanta, before facing Chile five days later at East Rutherford, New Jersey, and Peru on June 29 in Miami, Florida.