Soccer / J. League

Iniesta excited about new season

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

The J. League set out to leverage its newfound star power on Thursday at the league’s annual kickoff conference.

The media event usually offers a chance for the country’s soccer media to interact with all three of the J. League’s divisions.

But on Tuesday at a downtown Tokyo hotel, the focus was entirely on the top flight, with only the first division’s 18 clubs taking part.

Set at a venue much smaller than the one used in previous years, the intimate staging, pulsating music and dozens of officials standing in the wings gave the opening presentation the feeling of a fashion show.

It was certainly a new experience for Vissel Kobe’s Andres Iniesta, who participated in his first kickoff conference since joining the Kansai side last summer in a blockbuster move.

“We don’t do this sort of event in Spain but it’s an honor to be here representing the J.League,” the former Barcelona captain said. “I can’t wait for the season to start.”

His compatriot, Sagan Tosu striker Fernando Torres, promised that 2019 would be “a big season” for the club after the Kyushu outfit narrowly avoided relegation last year.

Torres also made a good-natured attempt to take Iniesta out of Sagan’s scheduled March 2 showdown against Vissel, inviting Iniesta and his family to spend the day at Tokyo Disneyland rather than Noevir Stadium.

“I appreciate the invitation but I love playing soccer so it will have to be another weekend,” laughed Iniesta in front of nearly 100 reporters who gathered for his news conference.

One manager who showed little sign of fatigue after 90 minutes of interviews was Urawa Reds boss Oswaldo Oliveira, who participated in his first kickoff conference since 2011, his last season at Kashima Antlers.

“I’m excited to be here once again, because last year I came in the middle of the season,” the Brazilian coach said. “The level of competition has always been very high in Japan, even if the players aren’t big names.”

Speaking at the end of the league’s presentation, chairman Mitsuru Murai reaffirmed his confidence in the J. League’s ability to draw a global audience.

“With players such as Iniesta, Torres, (Consadole Sapporo midfielder) Chanathip, (Yokohama F. Marinos defender) Theerathon, and (Nagoya Grampus striker) Jo, I believe we are becoming a league worthy of attention not only in Japan but in Asia and around the world,” Murai said.

His thoughts were echoed by vice chairman Hiromi Hara, who told The Japan Times that the league was thinking proactively regarding its international broadcasting rights, which former domestic broadcaster SkyPerfecTV will relinquish at the end of 2019.

“Right now we are discussing whether to package the global rights or go country-by-country,” said Hara. “In the past we’ve offered one or two matches per round for free in Brazil, for example. We want to make sure that fans overseas can enjoy as many games as possible.”

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