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Messi plays in Inter Miami loss to Vessel Kobe in Tokyo; Hong Kong still seethes at his absence

Lionel Messi of Inter Miami in action during the preseason friendly match between Vissel Kobe and Inter Miami at National Stadium on February 07, 2024 in Tokyo, Japan.

Lionel Messi of Inter Miami in action during the preseason friendly match between Vissel Kobe and Inter Miami at National Stadium on February 07, 2024 in Tokyo, Japan.
| Photo Credit: Kenta Harada

After leaving fans guessing about whether or not he would take to the pitch, Lionel Messi came on in the 60th minute in Inter Miami’s friendly match in Tokyo on Wednesday, thrilling locals but angering fans in Hong Kong, where he failed to play at a weekend game.

The 36-year-old’s no-show at the highly anticipated match in Hong Kong on Sunday caused a furore that has shown no sign of waning, with fans still demanding answers and a refund three days on.

Inter Miami’s opponent, J-League champion Vissel Kobe, won Wednesday’s match 4-3 in a penalty shootout after 90 minutes of play ended in a 0-0 draw. Messi, a record eight-time Ballon d’Or winner, did not take part in the shootout.

While the sold-out match in Hong Kong drew 40,000 fans, the Japan National Stadium was less than half full with just 28,614 in attendance.

“I couldn’t help but start laughing when (Luis) Suarez, (Sergio) Busquets, (Jordi) Alba – all main players – were in the game,” Tweety, a Hong Kong resident who watched Wednesday’s match online, told Reuters.

“Messi really likes the Japanese fans more by playing 30 minutes.”

With no Messi on the pitch for the first half, the silence at the Tokyo stadium was deafening at times during the mostly uninspiring match.

The loudest cheers erupted when the Argentine World Cup winner’s face was shown on the big screen as he sat on the bench. The mood shifted palpably when he started warming up shortly after halftime, and even more once he took to the field.

“It was thrilling,” said Chris Mohler, an American living in Tokyo. “The second half with Messi coming in, you could just feel like a jolt of electricity to go through the place.”

Another fan, 47-year-old Australian Benson Looi, who moved to Tokyo from Hong Kong five years ago, shared the sentiment.

“(My friends in Hong Kong) were all very disappointed. And I think so was the rest of Hong Kong. So yeah, sorry Hong Kong. But it was awesome (today). It was amazing.”

Hong Kong fans demand refund

Some fans in Hong Kong lashed out at the perceived injustice, commenting on Inter Miami’s YouTube livestream posting: “Refund refund refund refund refund” and “Arrest Messi under National Security Law.”

Even Hong Kong’s sports bureau weighed in, saying in an emailed response to Reuters that the government was “extremely disappointed” that Messi did not play in Hong Kong on Sunday.

“The coach … announced in Hong Kong on February 4 that Messi could not play due to injury, but three days later, Messi acted freely and played in Japan, and did a lot of intense sports on the football field,” the bureau wrote.

“Hong Kong citizens have lots of questions.”

Speaking to media in the mixed zone after the match on Wednesday, Inter Miami coach Tata Martino said the decision to play Messi for 30 minutes was made after the training session a day earlier.

“We are grateful to the people of Hong Kong, and we definitely understand the disappointment because (Messi) could not participate,” he said. “But it really was an enormous risk even playing him for a few minutes.”

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