KUALA LUMPUR - Embarrassing. Shameful.
Malaysia sports minister Khairy Jamaluddin used the Malay word "memalukan" to describe how the country's reputation had been sullied as Saturday night's friendly between Malaysia and Barcelona was shifted from Bukit Jalil to Shah Alam at the 11th hour.
This is La Blaugrana's first visit to Malaysia.
On Saturday, The New Paper had been the first to break the story that four-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi had picked up an injury after training on the patchy Bukit Jalil pitch on Friday evening.
After the one-hour session, the 26-year-old Argentinian was supposed to attend a private meet-and-greet with 50 fans alongside Jordi Alba, Cristian Tello, Martin Montoya and Frank Bagnack at the One World Hotel at around 10.30pm, but was absent because he required treatment.
It is unclear whether he injured his thigh or hamstring, but the latter troubled him in the later stages of last season.
Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino was seen prodding his boots into the inconsistent turf before the session and the Bukit Jalil pitch was obviously not in tip-top condition even though it had been relaid just this month.
In fact, it resembled the quilt-like surface in Jurong West Stadium when Singapore hosted the Philippines in an international friendly last September.
Reserve goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto hobbled off with a left knee injury on Friday but sources told TNP that the club are furious with the injury sustained by their crown jewel Messi.
One source close to the club said: "You can imagine the fuss Barcelona kicked up after Messi was hurt.
"It is unusual to change stadiums less than 24 hours before a match, but Barca were insistent they don't want to play at Bukit Jalil and risk further injuries that may hamper their season."
At close to midnight on Friday, the official Barcelona website announced the change in venue, after a emergency meeting among vice-president Josep Maria Bartomeu, director of football Andoni Zubizarreta and match promoters BSC Football (M) Sdn Bhd.
This information was then disseminated through media such as TV, radio and newspapers, while there were also signs (above) at Bukit Jalil indicating the late move.
Bartomeu noted that the contract, which was signed in February, "included the possibility to change the venue of the friendly in the event that the pitch was in poor condition".
He added: "We found that the pitch does not meet the necessary conditions; we could not compromise the wellbeing of our players.
"Club executives have visited the stadium on four occasions since February, and on each occasion we cautioned that the condition of the pitch needed to be improved."
He said that Martino and captains Xavi Hernandez, Victor Valdes and Andres Iniesta "were in agreement" with the decision, and stressed that: "We've executed the agreement we had, to play at Shah Alam, but it wasn't a negotiation, it was a conversation."
However, the move raised the ire of fans, both local and abroad.
On Twitter, Aysha Ridzuan posted: "People have started asking about the seating plan at Shah Alam. Tickets were sold according to seating plan in Bukit Jalil, but now..."
Around 87,000 tickets were printed originally, while Shah Alam Stadium can hold just 69,000. However, due to the Hari Raya period when Malaysians have mostly gone back to their hometowns for celebrations, the tickets did not fly off the counter as expected for a top team like Barcelona.
Inevitably, the confusion extended to Shah Alam on Saturday night, when there were swathes of empty seats but congestion at the VIP areas.
After being denied access to the VIP area, an Indian man hurled vulgarities, pointed to his ticket and shouted: "I paid more than RM500 ($193) for this and you don't let me in?"
Spaniard Miguel Roberto told TNP: "I made hotel bookings at Kuala Lumpur and I planned to take the train to the stadium. But now the new location is even further away and I heard there are no trains there and it will be a nightmare trying to find a taxi get back to KL."
Singaporean Mohd Zaldjian said: "It's just confusing for foreign visitors like us because it's difficult for us to learn of any official confirmation about any changes."
Malaysian Ahmad Faiz added: "Now we are famous in world football because our pitch has injured the best player in the world and pissed off one of the best teams ever."
Malaysia coach K Rajagobal declined comment on the issue.
In a short statement sent to the media, Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) general secretary Hamidin Amin had said the venue was changed "due to reasons that cannot be avoided", without providing any other details.
However, on his official Facebook page, Khairy wrote in Malay: "This is certainly embarrassing for the country's reputation as well as an inconvenience for supporters who have purchased tickets."
He added that he had previously asked for Bukit Jalil to be closed down so that the pitch could be overhauled, but the FAM had decided to hold the Malaysia Cup final there.
As a result, the stadium will be closed only after the final in October.
He also "empathised" with fans who had to change their plans and held FAM and match promoters BSC Football (M) Sdn Bhd responsible for the initial decision to stage the match at Bukit Jalil, despite the Chelsea friendly being organised at Shah Alam.
David Lee's trip to Kuala Lumpur is sponsored by Qatar Airways. Qatar Airways has 127 aircraft flying to 128 destinations, including 30 in Europe, and has the biggest network to Europe among Asian airlines flying out of Singapore. Qatar Airways flies 10 times a week from Singapore to Barcelona via Doha.
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