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Messi thrills Tokyo fans in friendly defeat by Kobe

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Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi pleased Tokyo fans on Wednesday in a friendly match that ended in a 4-3 penalty shootout loss to Vissel Kobe after the game ended goalless.

It came days after his absence on the pitch in a recent Hong Kong friendly had angered fans there.

He started on the bench in Inter Miami’s pre-season game against J-League side Kobe, worrying 28,614 spectators at Tokyo’s National Stadium, who chanted “Messi, Messi” in sporadic attempts to bring out the star.

They however 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, pleasing hundreds of fans who were seated just behind the Inter Miami bench.

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

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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.

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

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

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