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Messi’s return in Inter Miami draw vs. Vissel Kobe ends a long, arduous world tour

The roar went up from the crowd just after the second half started, as Inter Miami star Lionel Messi dropped his gear on the bench and joined the other substitutes in their warm-ups.

The attention grew as Messi jogged, got some touches and stretched. A huge cheer went up again as he took off his warm-ups and walked toward midfield. At almost exactly the hour mark, Messi entered the match.

There would be no repeat of Hong Kong. Messi was playing in Tokyo.

It took very little time to see the type of influence he has on this Inter Miami team — just as he has on every team on which he’s played. It was just preseason, and it ended in a 0-0 draw (and a loss on penalties), but even so, Messi’s half-hour against Vissel Kobe was a reminder of how different Inter Miami looks when the Argentine legend is in the middle of things.

The scoreless game had seen very little created by Miami throughout the first hour, but with Messi on the field suddenly everything looked a bit more connected and dangerous. In the 79th minute, Messi should’ve scored. He broke through on the left side, but his shot was saved by goalkeeper Shota Arai and his rebound was cleared off the goal line by a retreating defender. It was the best look he would get on goal through the game, and it was Inter Miami’s best opportunity in the game that ended scoreless.

Or had it? There was some confusion in the moments after the final whistle when some players went to exchange jerseys and get out of the cold (temperatures in Tokyo sunk to the low 40s Fahrenheit on the night of the game). Instead, they were going to take penalties. 

Messi did not take a penalty in the shootout, much to the dismay of the fans in Tokyo, and Vissel Kobe won, 4-3.

In all, though, it was a fairly positive performance from Inter Miami at the tail end of what has undoubtedly been an exhausting international tour. Most importantly, Messi got through his game time without issue after being held out of the previous game in Hong Kong as an injury precaution. 

“He was very happy now at the end of the game because he felt quite comfortable,” Martino said of Messi’s 30 minutes in Tokyo.

The hope for Inter is that they will have Messi on the field more often than not for the regular season, and a huge part of this preseason tour was simply getting back to Miami with Messi healthy. That part was accomplished, though not without a scare. Inflammation in his adductor limited Messi to a late cameo in the second game in Saudi Arabia and kept him out of the game Hong Kong, much to the dismay (and frustration) of the 38,000-plus in attendance. 

Busquets suffered an ankle injury but left the field on his own (PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

His absence made global news, but as the team and Messi both noted, the aim is to be ready on Feb. 21 when the MLS season starts. That he looked strong against Vissel Kobe was a relief.

A quick Google search, though, will show that this preseason tour has been lambasted as a “circus,” “disaster” and “the tour from hell.” There’s no denying it has been far from ideal. Inter Miami started the preseason by losing one of its best young players, Facundo Farías, to a torn ACL in the first game of the preseason in El Salvador. The 6-0 loss to Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia was ugly, both from a micro and macro perspective, even if it was one team in preseason facing an in-form, in-season team. Messi failing to play in Hong Kong, and the fact that the decision wasn’t communicated to fans even in the hours leading into the game, created disastrous scenes during and after the game, including co-owner David Beckham being booed as he tried to speak to the fans after the game.

Even in Tokyo, Inter Miami did not escape unscathed; Sergio Busquets left injured in the 25th minute after a collision, though he did walk down the tunnel on his own. The team said it’s a sprained ankle for Busquets and they are optimistic it is not as bad as it initially looked. Busquets will be further assessed when the team returns to Miami.

But while the lowlights seemed to stick out more than the highlights, there were obvious commercial motivations behind a schedule that had Miami circumnavigate the globe. Each stop brought huge commercial upside for the club, either tangible (appearance fees) or intangible (brand exposure). Miami is not the first MLS team to take advantage of such opportunities; the LA Galaxy similarly toured Asia when David Beckham was on its roster.

The scene in Tokyo was much the same as it had been in Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. Fans around the stadium wore the pink and black jerseys of Inter Miami; there were Argentina jerseys and a lot of Barcelona gear, too. On Thursday, numerous fans carried Fanatics bags with new jerseys still inside as they entered the stadium.

This tour did bring logistical challenges in balancing those commercial benefits with the sporting aspects of preseason. The team traveled more than 25,000 miles over the course of the last few weeks, and the back end of the tour featured four games across three time zones in 10 days, beginning Jan. 29 in Saudi Arabia and ending in Tokyo on Feb. 7. 

Even Messi, in a rare press conference on Tuesday in Tokyo, had to acknowledge the preseason schedule was taxing. When asked about how it felt to be in Japan, Messi ended his answer with a gaze toward Miami.

“Also tired, a little, from this whole tour we’ve been on and looking forward to playing the last game before returning home,” Messi said.

While Inter Miami won in Hong Kong, it felt like the game in Tokyo was a better overall performance against a stronger opponent. There were some positives Miami can build on.

In the first half, Vissel Kobe looked the more dangerous team. Goalkeeper Drake Callender made a big save to keep the game level in the 15th minute, and the Japanese side no doubt felt they should’ve gone into the break with a lead. But Miami was much more organized and composed in the second half, and once Messi entered the game they controlled the pace even more. Almost every attack went through Messi, much to the delight of the crowd. 

It was the best Inter Miami looked since the first game in Saudi Arabia, a 4-3 loss to Al-Hilal, in part simply because it’s the most they got out of Messi since that game. 

“It’s clear,” Jordi Alba said, “that Leo’s entry gives the team a lot.”

The team flew home directly after the game and are expected to have three days off to try to reorient their bodies in their home time zone and get some rest. Then the team will have one final preseason game on Feb. 15 against Newell’s Old Boys, Messi’s boyhood club and a team for which Tata Martino is a legend, before opening the season on Feb. 21 against Real Salt Lake.

These next three days will be Inter Miami’s last opportunity for real rest in these first months of 2024. That game against RSL opens a challenging early portion of the season in which they will play seven games in 26 days, due in part to the CONCACAF Champions Cup match-ups and the midweek game to open the MLS season.

The true test of this preseason will be in how well Inter Miami survives that brutal early period when the stakes are real. 

For now, though, despite the penalty shootout loss, it felt like there were some positives from the performance in Tokyo to hang on to as they boarded one last long-haul flight home.

(Photo: PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

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