Messi starts on bench in Tokyo after Hong Kong controversy

Lionel Messi started on the bench for Inter Miami’s pre-season friendly in Tokyo Wednesday, days after his absence on the pitch in a recent Hong Kong friendly angered fans there.

The decision not to come on in Hong Kong had prompted the ire of tens of thousands of fans, who booed the World Cup-winning Argentinian and the team’s co-owner David Beckham.

During a press event in Tokyo Tuesday, the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner said his leg injury was improving but refused to say whether he would play in the game against J-League side Vissel Kobe.

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 local XI.

The Hong Kong government demanded an explanation from the match’s organisers, who had sought public funding for the event. The organisers said they had withdrawn the government grant request after Messi’s no-show.

Miami’s win in Hong Kong was their first in five pre-season 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 February 21. BSS

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