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Messi impresses Tokyo fans despite Miami’s friendly defeat to Kobe

In a friendly match on Wednesday, Lionel Messi of Inter Miami delighted Tokyo fans despite his team’s 4-3 penalty shootout loss to Vissel Kobe. The game ended without any goals scored.

This match followed a recent absence from a friendly in Hong Kong, which had disappointed fans there. Messi began the game on the bench against J-League side Kobe, causing concern for the 28,614 spectators at Tokyo’s National Stadium. Throughout the match, they sporadically chanted “Messi, Messi” in hopes of seeing the star player.

Their anticipation grew in the second half as Messi and other substitutes began warming up, bringing joy to hundreds of fans seated behind the Inter Miami bench.

The moment came around 15 minutes into the second half, when the World Cup-winning Argentine replaced David Ruiz, sending the ecstatic 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 in a close-range shot that was saved by goalkeeper Shota Arai.

Vissel had also shown 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.

Kobe won the penalty shootout, with Messi not taking part.

Hong Kong controversy

The game drew a sharp comparison from 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.

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 organizers, who had sought public funding for the event.

The organizers said they had withdrawn the government grant request after Messi’s no-show.

Miami’s win in Hong Kong was their first in five preseason matches.

They drew 0-0 in El Salvador, lost to fellow MLS side FC Dallas, and then twice to club sides in Saudi Arabia.

Messi came on as a substitute six minutes from the end of the game in Saudi Arabia last Thursday.

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

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