Andres Iniesta and his impact on Japanese football

Legendary Spanish midfielder Andres Iniesta signed for Vissel Kobe in the summer of 2018 and is currently enjoying his third season at the club. His signing indicated an ambition to elevate the international reputation of the J.League whilst raising interest at home. A look at Iniesta’s achievements since his debut for the club shows the wide impact of his presence upon the domestic game as a whole.

Iniesta joined midway through the Japanese league season but still managed to contribute three goals and six assists in 14 games. Vissel only managed to finish in 10th position in J1, but Iniesta’s performances were influential. Indeed, the Spanish midfield maestro was named captain for the following season in which he scored six goals and claimed five assists in 23 games. Most pertinently, Iniesta led Vissel Kobe to the first trophy in their history as they lifted the Emperor’s Cup following a 2-0 victory over Kashima Antlers.

This season has started slowly with the side in 10th place after six games and they have drifted down in the outright markets as a consequence of this because they are currently priced at 14/1 at William Hill to win the league. Nevertheless, the club waited over 25 years for a trophy and it was delivered by the dimunitive Spaniard. It must be felt that the influence of Iniesta on the team, in training and on the pitch, was a hugely significant element of this achievement.

At 36 years of age, Iniesta is certainly not at the peak of his powers anymore but much of his success should be measured by his influence upon his team and the Japanese game generally. The increased interest garnered since his debut is beyond question, with Vissel Kobe reporting record revenue profits for the 2019 fiscal year: recording an operating profit of 11.44 billion yen - the first time the club had cleared 10 billion yen in a single year.

Iniesta's wider popularity in Japan is so great that his enforced injury absence from a game at FC Tokyo led to the hosts hiring an Iniesta impersonator to entertain the crowd. Despite the obvious humour in this, it does reflect the huge level of interest in the World Cup winner, as FC Tokyo were trying to appease a rare sell-out crowd of over 50,000 people who had been expecting his presence.

Iniesta’s popularity is beyond doubt, but the true significance of his Japanese adventure may ultimately be measured in the legacy he leaves behind. That is to say, can he help to lay a sustainable base that will grow the Japanese game beyond his stay? Iniesta has certainly shown a commitment to this ideal by holding his ‘Methodology’ academy sessions in Japan; the first time this has happened outside of Spain, and he has attended sessions himself, intending to pass his knowledge on whilst also emphasizing the challenges of making it as a professional.

With the 2020 Japanese season now in full-swing after the enforced break, it doesn’t appear as if retirement is around the corner for Iniesta just yet and he continues to grace the J.League with his inimitable style. His continued presence can only help to grow the game in Japan and will hopefully inspire a whole new generation of Japanese soccer stars.


 

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