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Iniesta to Kobe: The Best Thing to Happen to Japanese Football

Friday 25th May 2018

This isn’t just any random old player turning up in an exotic league. This is Andreas Iniesta from FC Barcelona. This is a legend of the Nou Camp. The man whose personal stats page boasts 653 appearances, 65 goals, 108 assists and a ridiculous lifetime pass accuracy rating of 90%. Oh, and 27 trophies. There are no words to convey his talent fully. His connection to Barcelona, however, was more than just silverware and certifications. He was the club’s longstanding captain and built a relationship stronger than most.

At full time in his final home game, teammates wore shirts with his name on the back. They rejoiced by lifting him in the air; as if he were a small child at a birthday party. The bond was so strong between the player and club that when all was said and done, he sat alone in the Nou Camp's centre circle, gazing at the ground. Reportedly, he remained there, pondering on his time with the club until one in the morning.

Given his grandeur at club level, it's easily overlooked that Iniesta played a major part in Spain’s international success. He won two European Championships and one World Cup in an eight-year span. He’s still active at that level, confirmed in the Spanish squad for this year’s World Cup.

Japan, though? The J.League? Isn't that so last decade? The Land of the Rising Sun no longer holds the appeal of the glamorous American lifestyle on offer for MLS retirees nor the paycheque available in the Chinese Super League. 

The explanation is simple. Iniesta is loyal to his friends. Rakuten sponsors Barcelona. Rakuten boss Hiroshi Mikitani owns Vissel Kobe. Iniesta and Mikitani developed their business relations into friendship. So, Andres accepted his friend's generous offer.

What does Japan hold for Iniesta?

He’s agreed to join Vissel Kobe, who are one of the most prosperous, thriving J.League clubs. Big money has gone into Kobe courtesy of the Rakuten corporation. Classically known for its high-quality beef, but not for any NBA superstars, the city is now trying to become famous for its football.

Lukas Podolski arrived around this time last year. He is a great addition to the club, but he’d finished with Germany and become a rotation option at Galatasaray. Signing Iniesta directly after he leaves Barcelona, while he’s still a Spanish international, is breaking new ground. It's a step up in class that could put Kobe on the football map.

Kobe plans to live up to its motto, “The best club in Asia”. There is no bigger continent to conquer in geographic terms, but there is an accessible strategy. Qualifying for and winning the Asian Champions League would achieve the goal. That tenacity and ambition probably attracted Iniesta to the project. You don't win 27 club trophies without purpose.

Let’s be honest. Iniesta could still play for Barcelona, if in a limited role, and Manchester City wanted him. His pace may drop, and he will likely be heavily rotated even in Japan, but he still has enough fuel in the tank to be an important player.

Also, the J.League will offer some familiarity. Its style is similar to La Liga. The game in Spain emphasises technique. There’s little room for argy-bargy. There are fewer bookings and players can play. Japanese football is also based on passing rather than tackling and grit. Its quality doesn't compare but ageing players must accept that to stay in the game. Iniesta may have to adjust to the Japanese culture, but when he steps on the pitch, he will feel at home. He can work his magic.

That said, Japan also presents a challenge. La Liga was a two-team system: Barcelona and Real Madrid. As a member of one of those teams, Iniesta always had a fifty-fifty chance to win the title. Points were anticipated in 36 of 38 matches.

The J.League is an open frontier. There are no traditional favourites. Clubs rise and set like so many suns. Kobe is a prosperous team, but even with Podolski in the ranks, it is sixth in the league. Iniesta can lift them into contention. 

How will Iniesta impact the J.League?

This might be the biggest thing to happen to the league since its creation 25 years ago. The league has birthed legends and welcomed marquee signings, but there’s been no one quite like Iniesta.

It’s hard to draw comparisons, but think David Beckham going to MLS, forget the tattoos, the Spice Girl, the initial lack of commitment, replace them all with the talent in Iniesta's little finger, and you're there.

Even though Beckham wanted to be in Serie A to keep him in the frame for one last World Cup, he stimulated American interest in the game to new heights and made the league relevant [sic] to outsiders. 

The same is happening here, but Iniesta has the opportunity to make a greater impression based simply on his professionalism and the fact he has more with which to work than had he gone to China.

Foreign stars have been swallowed whole by the Chinese Super League. People marvel at the eight-digit contracts when the players are introduced. Then, as far as the world at large is concerned, they disappear. 

The home-based talent is too underdeveloped to offer a compelling competition. Sky Sports bought the rights to air the league in the UK, only to realise their mistake and put the telecasts on the backburner a few months later.  

Meanwhile, Japanese footballers are competitive at international level, and no CSL signing could hold a candle to Iniesta.

A respectable World Cup for the Blue Samurai coupled with the Barcelona legend's arrival could make the JLeague the cuddly new stray that football enthusiasts bored with the top European Leagues will want to adopt.

Should the Masia graduate be a coach and mentor as well as teammate, Kobe could develop into a powerhouse with a distinct identity,. Their success would not only challenge other clubs to raise their game; it could spill over into the national team.

Iniesta’s arrival is the perfect 25th-anniversary gift for the J.League. May they use it well.

Warren Smith

A British and J.League soccer enthusiast, now local to Yokohama, Japan. A keen Arsenal supporter. Has been known to play the game every once in awhile, once likened to Xherdan Shaqiri. 

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