Soccer / J. League

Vissel sign ex-Barcelona star Andres Iniesta to massive deal

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

J. League club Vissel Kobe on Thursday announced the audacious signing of World Cup-winning former Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta in a deal reported to be worth over ¥3 billion a year.

“This is a very special day for me,” the 34-year-old Iniesta, who played his 669th and final game for Barcelona last Sunday, told a news conference in Tokyo attended by more than 300 reporters. “It’s an important challenge for my career.

“I’d like to move forward with this club. I’d like to help the J. League expand in Asia. I’d like to get to know my teammates and I’m really looking forward to that. This is a country that I really love, and me and my family are looking forward to settling in and enjoying our time here.”

Iniesta joins Vissel after an illustrious 16-year professional career with Spanish powerhouse Barcelona, during which he won the Champions League four times and the Spanish League nine times among numerous other titles.

Iniesta also scored the goal that gave Spain its first World Cup triumph in South Africa in 2010, and was part of the Spanish teams that won the European Championship in 2008 and 2012.

“I have a lot of respect for Japanese football,” he said. “Japanese players have a lot of technique and they are smart. They pass the ball well. I know about the J. League and the Japanese national team, and they have a lot of good players. I want to contribute to my team and show my style of play. That’s why I came to Japan.”

Vissel are owned by e-commerce giant Rakuten Inc., which last year entered into a four-year, $235 million sponsorship deal with Barcelona to emblazon its logo on the front of the Spanish club’s shirts.

Vissel also made headlines last summer by signing German World Cup-winning striker Lukas Podolski on a 2½-year deal worth an estimated $5.3 million a year. Vissel are currently sixth in the J. League table after 15 games, and finished ninth last year.

“Iniesta plays the most beautiful football in the world,” said Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani. “He is the most respected player in the world and he is going to play in the J. League. This is not just one foreign player joining the league — it means more than that.

“Iniesta will have a ripple effect throughout the J. League and the whole of Japanese soccer. I hope the J. League will grow to become a league that the whole world wants to watch. Many top players want to join the league and I hope that continues to grow. It will also give young players encouragement.”

No date was given for when Iniesta, who has been named in Spain’s squad for the June 14-July 15 World Cup in Russia, will join Vissel. The J. League is currently taking a break for the World Cup and will resume on July 18. Iniesta will be presented to fans in Kobe on Saturday.

The financial details of the deal were also not disclosed, although local media have reported that Iniesta has signed a three-year deal worth over ¥3 billion a year. It has also been reported that the deal includes the purchase of millions of bottles of Iniesta’s own wine brand, Bodega Iniesta, which is the largest producer in Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha region.

Iniesta had been expected to sign with a Chinese team when his exit from Barcelona was announced in April, but he said that Kobe’s offer had piqued his interest the most.

“I received many offers,” he said. “Other clubs showed interest in me and I would like to thank them for that. I decided to sign with Vissel because the project was very interesting. There was a lot of trust and confidence in me as a person and as a player. That was a big reason for me coming here.

“Japan is a great country and I love Japanese culture. I’d like to get used to Japan as soon as possible so that I can play well. I’d like to enjoy my life in Japan and I’d like to be a good teammate.”

Rakuten, which also owns NPB’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, has made several major moves into sports advertising over the past year. The company entered into a three-year, $60 million sponsorship agreement with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors last September to carry the company’s logo on the team’s uniforms.

“Iniesta is also a global influencer with an enormous presence on social media, with around 74 million followers,” said Mikitani. “His arrival in Japan will raise the profile of Japanese football globally, and we are working on activities to leverage his presence here and promote the J. League worldwide.”