Iniesta starts new chapter in Japan with Kobe switch

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Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta kicked off a new chapter in his career when he signed for Japanese side Vissel Kobe yesterday.
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Reuters

Former Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta poses with his new team jersey after signing for J-League side Vissel Kobe in Tokyo yesterday. 

Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta kicked off a new chapter in his career when he signed for Japanese side Vissel Kobe yesterday, swapping La Liga for the J-League after 16 stellar years at Spanish champion Barcelona.

The 34-year-old former Barcelona captain, who had spent his entire career at the Nou Camp, was introduced at a news conference in Tokyo by Kobe owner Hiroshi Mikitani and will wear his familiar No. 8 jersey for the J-League side.

“This is a very special day. This is a very important challenge for me and my career,” Iniesta said, noting that he had a lot of respect for Japanese soccer which had many high-level players.

“Therefore, I would like to contribute to my team and show my style of play. That is why I came to Japan and through my play I hope to make contributions for further development for the club and Japanese soccer.”

Mikitani called Iniesta “the most respected soccer player in the world” and said his signing would not only contribute to the club but also help promote the league through his name recognition.

“I hope the J-League will grow into a league that the whole world wants to watch,” said Mikitani, who is also the chief executive of Barcelona’s main sponsor Rakuten.

The Spain icon’s decision to choose Kobe arguably represents Japanese football’s biggest transfer coup, with many top players now moving to cash-rich Chinese clubs in the twilight of their careers.

It also comes as a timely boost to the J-League, which used to attract luminaries such as Brazil great Zico and former England star Gary Lineker when it began in 1993 but has struggled to attract marquee players in recent years.

The move will see Iniesta, who bid a tearful farewell when he played his final game for Barcelona on Sunday, link up with former German international Lukas Podolski, who joined the Japanese side, based in the western port city of Kobe, last year. The striker was quick to send a “welcome” tweet to Iniesta yesterday.

Barcelona and Denmark great Michael Laudrup also played for Kobe for one season between 1996-97.

Iniesta, who is reported to have agreed a three-year deal with an annual salary of US$30 million — comfortably a J-League record — will try to help Kobe, currently sixth in the J1 League after 15 games, win a first ever Japanese championship. The club’s highest-ever finish was seventh in 2016.

At Barcelona, he won nine La Liga titles, four UEFA Champions League titles and six Copas del Rey.

Before he embarks on his Japanese adventure, Iniesta will join up with his Spain teammates to prepare for the World Cup in Russia, where they will be seeking a second title.

Iniesta scored the only goal in the 2010 final against the Netherlands to give Spain its first World Cup. This year, it kicks off its Group B campaign against Portugal in Sochi on June 15. Morocco and Iran are the other teams in the pool.


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