TOKYO - Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi made a second-half cameo for Inter Miami in their 4-3 penalty shootout loss to J-League champions Vissel Kobe following a scoreless draw at Tokyo’s National Stadium on Wednesday.
The friendly was the final leg of a preseason tour for the US Major League Soccer that became mired in controversy after eight-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi was unable to play during an earlier stop in Hong Kong.
After leaving fans guessing about whether or not he would take to the pitch, Messi came on in the 60th minute on Wednesday. He did not take part in the shootout that decided the match.
The 36-year-old’s no-show in front of a sellout crowd in Hong Kong on Sunday caused a furore that has shown no sign of waning, with fans demanding answers and refunds.
The match in Hong Kong drew 40,000 fans, with spectators paying up to nearly HK$5,000 (US$640) per ticket. In Tokyo, entire blocks of seating at the Japan National Stadium remained unoccupied, with just 28,614 tickets sold.
“It’s very gratifying to watch the live broadcast when he started warming up,” said Tweety, a fan who watched the Hong Kong game on TV and spoke to Reuters on Wednesday.
“I can’t help but start laughing when (Luis) Suarez, (Sergio) Busquets, (Jordi) Alba, all main players were in the game. Messi really likes the Japanese fans more by playing 30 minutes.”
Some Hong Kong fans also commented on the Inter Miami YouTube livestream. One posted: “Refund refund refund refund refund” and another demanded “Arrest Messi under National Security Law.”
The silence at the Tokyo stadium was deafening at times during the mostly uninspiring match between the J-League champions and Inter Miami.
The crowd erupted in the loudest cheers of the night when Messi started to warm up shortly after halftime, and the Argentine World Cup winner’s face was shown on the big screen.