The saga of where Andres Iniesta will go next is officially over. Not China, Australia or the Middle East (like former Barcelona teammate Xavi) but Japan. The J.League is now home to one of the best players in the world and Vissel Kobe are once again showing their ambition to move from a middling Japanese team to the best in Asia.
It is only a matter of time before the 2010 World Cup winner slides the ball through a packed Japanese defence for 2014 champion Lukas Podolski to score a goal for the Kansai club. Kobe have never won the league title — or come close to doing so — but they are now the talk of the football world.
Japan seems a better football fit for Iniesta than the other destinations mentioned. With a game built on passing and technique, the 34-year-old will fit right in. He should find teammates and opponents alike willing and ready to learn from one of the greatest players in the modern era.
Not just colleagues but kids, too. Kobe chairman Hiroshi Mikitani told reporters at the player’s unveiling in Tokyo on Thursday that he wants Iniesta to show future players the right way.
“We look forward to not only his strengthening of the team’s performance, but his contribution to the development of our next generation of players through the introduction of the Iniesta methodology to Vissel’s youth academy,” he said.
The chance to leave a legacy may well appeal to Iniesta, a player who has won all there is to win, though a reported wage of $90 million over three years helps. He can also, as Mikitani pointed out, help inspire the whole of Japanese football and will be able to do that as much from his name and profile as with his skills.
The J.League had lost a little of its lustre in recent years. The level of imports, both coaching staff and players, had dropped compared to the early mid-1990s days when the likes of Zico (there is a statue of the Brazilian outside the Kashima Soccer Stadium) and Dunga helped it get on its feet.
There was a feeling of staleness, that the league had plateaued, along with the attendance figures. The fact that, at the start of the decade, Chinese teams started buying famous stars to make the Chinese Super League the most-talked about and popular in Asia went down badly in Tokyo. Kobe may want to be become the best team on the continent, but league officials are also keen to have a club able to help the competition back to its former status.
Money was always going to be needed in order to do so and it is increasingly there. Rakuten’s bankrolling of Vissel Kobe is one example and Mikitani, the seventh richest man in Japan with a reported net worth of $4.5 billion, is not just the chairman of the club but founder of the company.
The-commerce giant has had close ties with the port city club for years but bought it outright in 2014. There has been investment in the team that went on to finish seventh in 2016, a highest ever place. But last season they finished a disappointing ninth, even with the addition of Podolski, whose time in Japan has been largely unremarkable.
Rakuten also sponsor Barcelona, where Iniesta has spent his entire career until now. That obviously helped smooth the deal as did the player’s friendship with Mikitani.
Iniesta will help lift the profile of the club and the league. Rakuten pointed out that he has 74 million social media followers, a figure that J.League teams can only dream of. It is something Rakuten can use too, at home and overseas. The midfielder’s first public appearance is set to be a ceremonial first pitch for a baseball team also owned by the company.
“Through promotions related to Iniesta across multiple channels of the Rakuten Ecosystem, including Rakuten TV, Rakuten will work to build the fan base of Vissel Kobe and the J.League, both in Japan and overseas,” the company said in a statement.
What is encouraging for J.League fans is that Kobe are not the only ones with cash to spend. The 10-year broadcasting deal that started in 2017 brought in $2bn (for domestic digital rights only) and some of that has filtered through to the clubs. There are also reports that Sagan Tosu, far from being a traditional Japanese giant, are close to signing former Atletico Madrid, Chelsea and Liverpool star Fernando Torres.
If more clubs follow suit then the international profile of a solid and fascinating league will continue to grow. No arrival though, surely, will be as big as Iniesta as he has a major role to play in Kobe and Japan, on and off the pitch.
It is the kind of challenge he relishes, though. If the Barcelona legend is successful then when he eventually leaves the Land of the Rising Sun, he may get a send-off to rival his Barcelona goodbye.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.