Soccer

FC Barcelona to meet Chelsea, Vissel Kobe in summer friendlies in Japan

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

FC Barcelona will face English Premier League veteran Chelsea and the J. League’s Vissel Kobe this July, adding to the list of star-studded club friendlies set to take place in Japan this summer.

The Spanish first-division leader, which last October announced plans to visit Japan and China in its upcoming preseason tour, will play Chelsea at Saitama Stadium on July 23 before traveling west to take on Vissel at Noevir Stadium.

It is arguably the culmination of a partnership which began in 2017, when Rakuten became the club’s top sponsor.

“Rakuten is not only a partner for football, but our partnership (with them) very important for us to share values of respect, teamwork and ambition,” said former Barcelona defender and current technical secretary Eric Abidal.

“Everyone knows we have three (former) players at Kobe — Sergi Samper, Andres Iniesta, David Villa. They know the philosophy of Barcelona. They are here to help Japanese football grow, to help the young players know the way of football in Barcelona. As a club, our partnership with Rakuten is part of this.”

Iniesta, in a prerecorded interview, expressed his excitement at being able to take on the club he called home for over 20 years.

“I spent so much time there before coming to Kobe, and it’s wonderful that we can play them at our stadium,” the former Spain international said. “It’s a new experience for me. I’ve never played for any team other than Barcelona. I want this match to bring out the best of us, and I think it will be an important opportunity to grow.”

It will be Barcelona’s first appearance in Japan since December 2015, when it defeated Argentina’s River Plate at International Stadium Yokohama (Nissan Stadium) to win that year’s FIFA Club World Cup. Barcelona also beat Santos to win the 2011 edition, a campaign in which Abidal took part.

“I was surprised, because Spain is far away, but the fan base that we have here in Japan is huge,” Abidal said when asked to recount the experience. “(Japanese fans) are in love with football. For them, it’s more than a passion.”

Rakuten Inc. chairman Hiroshi Mikitani, speaking a day after his club Vissel replaced former manager Juan Manuel Lillo with former player and manager Takayuki Yoshida, stressed that the meeting between two European superclubs would be a momentous occasion for fans.

“J. League teams and foreign teams have had friendlies before, but this time the (top) teams in Europe are coming to Japan to have a match — a dream event,” said Mikitani. “This will bring a positive impact to the many people watching, including children who want to become soccer players and even current professional players.”

Chelsea, visiting Japan this summer for the first time since finishing runner-up to Brazil’s Corinthians at the 2012 Club World Cup, is also scheduled to play defending J1 champion Kawasaki Frontale in Yokohama on July 19.

“We’ve had a healthy rivalry (with Barcelona) over the last decade and the match will be a superb experience,” Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck said in a videotaped statement. “This will be a fantastic opportunity for Chelsea to meet our fans in Japan and make new friends and fans in Japan.”