Soccer / J. League | J. LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Vissel Kobe's David Villa wants to end career on New Year's Day

by Dan Orlowitz

In a Wednesday news conference occasionally interrupted by tears, Vissel Kobe striker David Villa announced his decision to retire after the end of the current J. League season.

The 2010 World Cup winner has spent the twilight of his career globetrotting since establishing himself as one of the world’s top strikers with Spain’s Valencia and Barcelona.

Villa set out abroad after winning his country’s domestic title with Atletico Madrid in the 2013-14 season, joining Australia’s Melbourne City for a short stint followed by four impressive years with Major League Soccer’s New York City FC.

His signing with Vissel last December further stoked international interest in the J. League which had begun growing just six months earlier with the arrival of compatriot Andres Iniesta. The pair, alongside former Germany star Lukas Podolski, sparked a run of sellouts at games involving Kobe and drew media coverage from around the world.

“It is our honor to have one of the greatest football players in history to play his last season in Japan at Vissel Kobe,” said Hiroshi Mikitani, the club’s charismatic chairman. “All of the fans of Vissel Kobe and all the people in Japan are so grateful you came to Japan and played here.”

Although Villa has contributed a team-best 12 goals, Kobe has floundered in this season’s campaign and will likely finish mid-table under midseason replacement manager Thorsten Fink.

But while he remains in good physical condition at 37 years old, Villa emphasized his desire to end his career on his own terms.

“I don’t want to be forced to retire (by injury),” Villa said.

“For the last few years I’ve only signed one-year contracts so that after each year I can consider whether I have the motivation and fitness to continue. This was the right time.”

Vissel has just two games left in the campaign, including what should be an emotional Dec. 7 season finale at home against Jubilo Iwata. But Villa hopes he can instead end his playing career after the Emperor’s Cup final, which will take place at the new National Stadium in Tokyo on New Year’s Day.

“My wish is to win the Emperor’s Cup on Jan. 1,” said Villa. “I want to lift the trophy with my teammates.”

While Villa will no longer scare defenders, he has no plans to step back from the game entirely. On Tuesday, he confirmed his role as a lead investor in Queensboro FC, a newly-formed club scheduled to join the U.S. second division USL Championship for the 2021 season.

‘Big Final’ to pack Nissan

As usual, the J. League has potentially saved its best for last with a season finale featuring current leaders FC Tokyo away at nearby Yokohama F. Marinos, who trail by a single point with three rounds remaining.

Touted by Marinos as “The Big Final,” the showdown at Nissan Stadium has the potential to shatter the previous attendance mark set at the venue in December 2004, when 64,899 attended the first leg of the team’s championship final against Urawa Reds.

While tickets for the match are currently unavailable, the club has not declared a sellout and it’s expected that more will be made available in the near future.

On Monday, Marinos announced that manager Ange Postecoglou, who has steered the team to within reach of its first league title in 15 years, will remain in charge for the 2020 season. Tokyo made a similar announcement earlier this month regarding Kenta Hasegawa, who is looking for his first title with the capital club after winning the league in 2014 with Gamba Osaka.

Early start for Levain Cup

The 2020 J. League YBC Levain Cup will start ahead of the J. League as the league adjusts its schedule around the Tokyo Olympics, Sponichi reported Wednesday morning.

The schedule, presented to club officials on Tuesday and set to be ratified in December, sees the cup tournament opening on Feb. 16 — one week before the league opens on Feb. 21 and 22.

With several J. League stadia being used for the Olympics and team training facilities opening their doors for athletes from around the world, the J. League has already solidified plans to suspend all three divisions for the Summer Games, which will take place July 24-Aug. 9.

Imabari clinches promotion

The J. League’s third division will expand to 16 professional teams in 2020 after FC Imabari clinched a top-four finish in the Japan Football League and subsequent J3 promotion with a 1-0 win over Maruyasu Okazaki on Sunday.

The side, owned by former national team head coach Takeshi Okada, will be the second from Ehime Prefecture and the fourth from the island of Shikoku in the league, joining Ehime FC, Tokushima Vortis and Kamatamare Sanuki.

On Tuesday, fellow J. League aspirants Tokyo Musashino City FC announced that they were abandoning their bid for entry into the 2020 J3, citing an inability to reach thee required average attendance of 2,000 per game with one home fixture remaining.

The J3, which currently features 18 teams, will drop to 16 next year following the planned withdrawal of three Under-23 teams fielded by J1 sides.