• Kyodo


Andres Iniesta should be in his element right now, conducting his Vissel Kobe team on the pitch nine rounds into the J. League season.

But instead, he is isolated in Japan with his family, their minds on the battle Spain is waging against the coronavirus.

"Obviously, we are very worried because we can't be there," he said Tuesday.

"We try to talk with our family to check how they are doing, check the situation and hope that this gets better as soon as possible."

Despite being under a nationwide state of emergency, Japan has yet to be as severely hit by the virus as many countries, but Iniesta says he, his wife and their four children are dealing with the same stresses as everyone else.

"We are living like everyone else is living in this situation. We are obviously worried, trying to follow the advice and suggestions from the experts.

"In my case, I am spending all my time with my family here at home, trying to help my kids with their homeschooling. I'm trying to fit in some exercise time too, to keep maintaining my condition."

Although insignificant when compared to the life and death concerns in Spain and other badly affected countries, the pandemic has also thrown Vissel's best-laid plans into chaos, especially after Iniesta's teammate Gotoku Sakai tested positive for the virus.

Iniesta and his squad were primed to make some noise in the 2020 season, with the Spain and Barcelona legend having captained Vissel to their first major trophy on New Year's Day via a 2-0 win over Kashima Antlers in the Emperor's Cup final at Tokyo's new National Stadium.

But when the spread of the coronavirus forced the season to be paused after the first round in late February, all that momentum risked being lost.

The 2010 World Cup champion and four-time European Champions League winner says he and his teammates have been doing as much as they can to ensure they stay together, even with the season's restart date remaining a mystery.

"We keep communicating, we keep talking with other members of the team, messages, some videoconferences," he said. "(We are) trying to keep that communication between teammates to keep the motivation, to keep a good spirit in the team."

"Thanks to this technology, nowadays I think even though we can't see each other we can keep good communication so the team stays united."

Keeping the team united should not be too much of a problem with Iniesta involved, as is perhaps best demonstrated by the caliber of people who sing his praises in a soon-to-be-released Rakuten TV documentary entitled "Andres Iniesta: The Unexpected Hero."

Whether it be arguably the sport's best-ever player, Argentina's Lionel Messi, saying he is "a normal person who perseveres, and that's why he's loved," or Brazil's superstar striker Neymar calling him an "idol" who you meet only to find he is "totally different," Iniesta seems to be a bonding force.

Having taken the leap from Barcelona — the club with which he grew up, excelled and established himself among the sport's greatest midfielders — Iniesta landed in western Japan looking to write another, much different, chapter of his life.

"Obviously, (making the move) was not an easy decision, I had felt like I had given everything to Barcelona — mentally, physically, in all the senses," he said.

"I had achieved all the things that seemed almost like a dream, that seemed like it would be impossible to achieve, and after all those years I felt like I had given everything, I had emptied out."

Iniesta said he had been in need of a fresh challenge, "something new to excite me, and when I talked with (Hiroshi) Mikitani from Rakuten and (Atsuhiro) Miura, sports director from Vissel Kobe, they transmitted to me their hunger, their will for this new project they were working on."

"I was really convinced about this project and it was something that was a new challenge and something that would excite me, and that is why I made this big decision."

Iniesta has quickly demonstrated his time in Japan is far from a mercenary enterprise, as he has embraced life in his new, if temporary, home.

He has established a soccer academy at locations in the Kobe-Osaka area, an effort he said is about sharing his understanding of the game on a philosophical as well as physical level. It is such a draw that one student travels some five hours each way from Nagano Prefecture to receive tutelage.

"From the beginning, this project at Iniesta Methodology was very important," he said of the academy, which sprinkles in Spanish-language instruction to expand the students' linguistic horizons.

"We have been able to implement it here in Japan, teach kids my way of understanding football and understanding life, and I am very happy about that and I'd like to thank all those kids and the parents who have shown interest."

So having now experienced the entire spectrum of Japanese soccer, from juniors to the pro league, what is Iniesta's opinion of the game in Japan?

"I really think the Japanese players are really dynamic, very technically gifted and I really like that," he said. "It is difficult to play against them, it is not an easy league and I am really enjoying it."

"I came here to adapt to their football, to understand it first and then to adapt to it. That is what I did and once I came here I really saw how Japanese football is."

But perhaps the best indication of the man is that, despite his laundry list of international, club and personal accolades, he still has his eyes and ears open to learning new things.

"In terms of football, I have learned a lot (in Japan). I am really enjoying the quality, the level of this league, the competitiveness here. … It is all something that I can learn from."

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