Soccer

Hiroki Abe has potential to become 'important player' for Barcelona, team president says

Kyodo

While some European clubs have targeted Asian players in the hope of capturing lucrative overseas markets, Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu says the Spanish champion acquired Hiroki Abe for purely sporting reasons.

Bartomeu, whose side practiced Friday on the eve of a friendly against the J. League’s Vissel Kobe, said it recruited Abe to its reserve team with a view to him eventually becoming a leading player in La Liga.

“It is a sports decision, because he has the talent and he has the knowledge to be a very important player in our team,” Bartomeu told Kyodo News.

Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde tested several younger players in Tuesday’s 2-1 exhibition loss to Chelsea at Saitama Stadium, but 20-year-old Abe was not among them due to a sore hip.

But Valverde said afterward that Abe, the 2018 J. League Young Player of the Year with the Kashima Antlers, still had a chance to make his first appearance for the Blaugrana against Vissel at Kobe’s Noevir Stadium.

With former Barca players Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Sergi Samper set to line up for Kobe on Saturday, Bartomeu said he expected the movement of players between Europe and Japan to increase in both directions.

“I am sure new (Japanese) players will come to Europe, and also European players will come to Japan,” he said. “We should find (it) normal.”

The 56-year-old club president — who rates the J. League as the best competition outside Europe — said Barcelona kept close tabs on the soccer scene in Japan, thanks in part to its three junior academies in the country.

While some fans expressed disappointment after teenage star Takefusa Kubo, a Barcelona youth product, recently joined rival Real Madrid, Bartomeu said the move was simply a part of the business and overall a positive for relations between Japanese and European soccer.

“Personally I am happy, because it is (another) Japanese player coming to play in Europe,” he said.

“Kubo was trained in the way of the Barca style (but) that doesn’t mean he can’t play in other clubs. It’s good news that more and more Japanese players come to the top clubs in Europe.”

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