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Messi wows Tokyo fans days after Hong Kong no-show

Lionel Messi started on the bench for the pre-season game against J-League side Vissel Kobe (Philip FONG)
Lionel Messi started on the bench for the pre-season game against J-League side Vissel Kobe (Philip FONG)

Inter Miami's Lionel Messi played 30 minutes of a friendly match in Japan on Wednesday, days after his no-show in a similar match sparked fury in Hong Kong.

The Argentine superstar came in for the tail end of a goalless draw with Vissel Kobe in Tokyo, which his team lost 4-3 on penalties.

He started on the bench for the pre-season game against J-League side Kobe, worrying 28,614 spectators at the National Stadium, who chanted "Messi, Messi" in sporadic attempts to coax out the 36-year-old.

They began to sense their good fortune early in the second half, when the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner and other substitutes began warming up.

The moment came around the hour mark, when the World Cup-winning captain replaced David Ruiz, sending the crowd into a moment of roaring frenzy that was followed by passionate cheers at his every touch.

In the 79th minute, he dribbled solo into the Kobe box and fired a close-range shot that was saved by goalkeeper Shota Arai.

After the game, Miami coach Gerardo Martino said the decision to use Messi was made Tuesday afternoon.

"In the training yesterday afternoon, he said he was feeling good. We decided then that he would play for 30 minutes," Martino said.

That was good enough to please many fans who braved winter cold to attend the night game.

"Absolutely extraordinary," said Hiroto Hori, 45, of the star. "I witnessed the moment when a single player changed the direction of the game."

Others echoed the feeling.

"It (the game) was quiet at the beginning, but Messi changed it totally," said Yuta Tanaka, 30.

Vissel had also showed promise, especially early in the match with former Japan international striker Yuya Osako hitting the post 15 minutes into the game.

A minute later, Osako struck the woodwork again.

Messi did not take a kick in the shootout, which Kobe won.

- Hong Kong controversy -

The game stood in sharp contrast with Sunday when Messi and the team's co-owner David Beckham were booed by tens of thousands of fans in Hong Kong after the star did not play in a friendly, citing injury.

During a press event in Tokyo on Tuesday, Messi said his leg injury was improving but refused to say whether he would play in the Tokyo game.

Tickets for the Japan leg of the US Major League Soccer (MLS) club's globe-trotting pre-season tour cost between 10,000 yen ($68) and 200,000 yen ($1,346) with "special experience" packages priced even higher.

On Sunday in Hong Kong, a crowd of nearly 40,000 who paid for similarly expensive tickets were involved in angry scenes after Messi stayed rooted to the bench during his side's 4-1 win against a Hong Kong select XI.

The Hong Kong government demanded an explanation from the match's organisers, who had sought public funding for the event.

Miami have one more friendly, at home to Argentina's Newell's Old Boys next week, before the new MLS season starts on February 21.

bur-hih/leg