Lionel Messi plays during a friendly match between Inter Miami and Vissel Kobe in Tokyo on February 7, 2024.

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Hong Kong CNN  — 

For Lionel Messi, it should have been a few minutes of easy work.

But the Argentine soccer idol’s failure to leave the substitutes’ bench in a routine preseason exhibition match has unleashed an unexpected public relations nightmare in one of the world’s most lucrative sports markets where, until now, he had enjoyed widespread popularity.

The public backlash in China began Sunday when Messi didn’t appear for Major League Soccer club Inter Miami while in Hong Kong – and ramped up when he joined the team’s game in Japan just days later.

Messi, who was declared unfit to play in Hong Kong, came on as a 60th minute substitute against Vissel Kobe in Tokyo on Wednesday – an appearance that seemed to energize his teammates before they lost on penalty kicks.

Across social media in mainland China, scathing commentary on Messi was a dominant topic. One widely circulated video appears to show a blogger chopping up his collection of Messi jerseys with a pair of scissors.