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Vissel Kobe on Tuesday announced a two-year contract extension with captain Andres Iniesta, ensuring that the Spanish superstar will remain in the country he considers his “second home” until the end of the 2023 season.

The signing ceremony — which was followed by a cake celebrating Iniesta’s 37th birthday — took place less than two weeks after the midfield maestro returned to the pitch from an injury suffered during last December’s Asian Champions League.

“Three years ago … (Iniesta) said he was coming to Kobe not as a player, but to write a new history for the club in Japan and in Asia,” Vissel president and Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani said during a news conference at the Prince Park Tower in Tokyo’s Minato Ward.

“Now I understand why he was the only player that Real Madrid fans would applaud at El Clasico. Vissel Kobe’s status — as well as that of the J. League overseas — has risen because of his contributions.”

The arrival of Iniesta in the summer of 2018 — along with that of his former Spain teammate Fernando Torres, who signed with Sagan Tosu during the same World Cup break — heralded a new era of popularity for the J. League both domestically and overseas, with attendance records shattered and a steady stream of international news coverage tracking every move of the European players.

Iniesta, who won six La Liga titles and three Champions League trophies with Barcelona before joining Vissel, has become one of the J. League’s most famous ambassadors — regularly promoting the competition to his more than 25 million Twitter and 36 million Instagram followers.

Vissel owner Hiroshi Mikitani and midfielder Andres Iniesta pose with uniforms commemorating the latter's contract extension. | VISSEL KOBE
Vissel owner Hiroshi Mikitani and midfielder Andres Iniesta pose with uniforms commemorating the latter’s contract extension. | VISSEL KOBE

On the pitch, he has become the leader of a Vissel side that has struggled to finish above midtable, playing under five different managers in his first three years at the club.

But despite missing a third of the 2019 J. League first-division campaign due to injuries, Iniesta did play a crucial role in securing Vissel’s first-ever trophy when they defeated Kashima Antlers to win that year’s Emperor’s Cup.

“As I said (when I joined the club), this new challenge has been a big step for my family,” Iniesta said. “I want to thank Mr. Mikitani for continuing to show faith in me. There have been difficult times, but I have overcome them.

“I also want to thank everyone at the club for showing me love and respect as a member of the Kobe family. This is a special day for me.”

In 2019, Iniesta opened his own soccer academy, Iniesta’s Methodology, in cooperation with Rakuten. The two-time Euro winner and 2010 World Cup champion indicated that similar projects could be in the works even after he finally decides to retire.

“As a player, I want to finish my career here. But of course I want to continue to be associated with this club in various forms, not just as a player,” Iniesta said. “Three years ago I was very motivated to start this project and I remain motivated.

“(Right now) I want to give my best on the pitch, and in order to do that I’m training every day. We’re improving every day, but our goals are big and I want to contribute toward accomplishing them.”

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