From Kobe Beef to Fighting the Drop: Andres Iniesta Embraces New Life in Japan

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 2, 2018

HIRATSUKA, JAPAN - AUGUST 19:  (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Andres Iniesta of Vissel Kobe looks on after the J.League J1 match between Shonan Bellmare and Vissel Kobe at Shonan BMW Stadium Hiratsuka on August 19, 2018 in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa, Japan.  (Photo by Hiroki Watanabe/Getty Images)
Hiroki Watanabe/Getty Images

By moving to Japan to play for Vissel Kobe, Andres Iniesta opened himself up to new experiences: a new home, a new language, a new culture, a new style of football. One new experience he was not looking for was a relegation battle.

With four matches of the 2018 season remaining, Kobe sit four points clear of the J1 League relegation zone in 12th place among 18 teams. They have gone eight matches without victory in all competitions (one draw, seven defeats), and their three most recent losses came by scores of 4-0, 5-0 and 5-3.

Iniesta has made 10 league appearances, for a return of three wins, two draws and five defeats. During his Barcelona glory years, he regularly went through entire league campaigns without losing as many games.

Kobe's destiny is in their own hands, and they face a relatively benign run-in. Two of their remaining matches are against clubs below them in the table, and none of their future opponents sit higher than eighth. But for a team whose stated ambition is to become "the No. 1 club in Asia," it is not quite the triumphant start to life with Iniesta that they were hoping for.

"Given the magnitude of the signing, it would be pretty tragic if Kobe were to get relegated," says Shintaro Kano, a sports reporter from Japan's Kyodo News.

Iniesta had no trouble living up to his billing in his initial outings for Kobe, scoring two magnificent goals in his first four appearances. At home to Jubilo Iwata in early August, he gathered a pass from Lukas Podolski with a sublime drag-back that left centre-back Kentaro Oi sprawled on the turf, before deftly rounding the goalkeeper to score.

Four days later, against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, he shuffled into space on the edge of the box and propelled a right-foot rocket into the top-left corner. Since then, reality has bitten.

KAWASAKI, KANAGAWA - OCTOBER 20:  (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Andres Iniesta of Vissel Kobe in action during the J.League J1 match between Kawasaki Frontale and Vissel Kobe at Todoroki Stadium on October 20, 2018 in Kawasaki, Kanagawa, Japan. (Photo by Koji Wata
Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

Typically operating in his usual left-sided midfield role, Iniesta remains the same player—the same gossamer touch, the same darting dribbles, the same elegantly weighted passes—but the supporting cast is not what he is accustomed to. Aside from fellow World Cup winner Podolski, who arrived a year earlier from Galatasaray, the players around him have little experience of elite-level football.

Kobe possess a striker from Brazil (a must-have for any self-respecting J1 League team), but the Brazilian in question, Wellington, has only ever scored goals prolifically in the Japanese second tier. The squad's only current internationals are South Korean goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu, Qatari centre-back Ahmed Yasser and Thai left-back Theerathon Bunmathan. Collectively, the Japanese players who form the bulk of the squad have earned only 27 senior caps between them, 21 of which were won by defender Masahiko Inoha.

"Iniesta will play a dozen superb passes that nobody else on the pitch would have been capable of. Unfortunately, because he's so much better than his team-mates, they aren't necessarily making the right runs for him," says Ben Mabley, an English football commentator based in Osaka.

For all their lofty ambitions, Kobe's current position is entirely in keeping with the club's history. In the J.League era, they have never finished higher than seventh in the top flight, have never qualified for the Asian Champions League and have never so much as reached a final in Japan's two domestic cup competitions.

"As good a signing as Iniesta or Podolski might be, it's not very realistic for one or two players to turn around the entire culture of a club who haven't been very successful over the years," says Kano. "Kobe haven't had a history of winning."

For his part, Iniesta has been complimentary about the level of football in the J.League, declaring himself "pleasantly surprised" and describing the players in the league as "fast and very skilful."

"Japanese football is very physical," he said in September. "When you get the ball, you are immediately attacked by two or three players. It's very challenging."

On-pitch communication involves a blend of Japanese and English. Iniesta says that he has been teaching his new team-mates Spanish terms in return for help with the local language. "Things are getting better day by day," he says. "I don't think language is a barrier."

KOBE, JAPAN - OCTOBER 06:  (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Andres Iniesta of Vissel Kobe and Juanma of V-Varen Nagasaki compete for the ball during the J.League J1 match between Vissel Kobe and V-Varen Nagasaki at Noevir Stadium Kobe on October 6, 2018 in Kobe, Hyog
Masashi Hara/Getty Images

The club's owners, e-commerce giant Rakuten, acted to arrest Kobe's slide in late September by sacking head coach Takayuki Yoshida. He was replaced by Juanma Lillo, who previously served as a mentor for Iniesta's former Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola. Rakuten has been Barcelona's principal sponsor since 2017 and the company's charismatic owner, Kobe native Hiroshi Mikitani, was the man who convinced Iniesta to move to Japan.

Officially, Iniesta played no role in the club's decision to appoint 52-year-old Lillo, but it is probably safe to assume that he was at least sounded out. Speaking at the time of Iniesta's unveiling, Mikitani said: "We want him involved in the management of the whole club."

If it remains to be seen how much Iniesta can improve Kobe's performances on the pitch, his impact has been enormous in every other domain.

Around 300 journalists from around the world attended his official unveiling in Tokyo in May, and Kobe's matches since he arrived have all sold out. (When a trip to Spain in early August caused Iniesta to miss Kobe's match at FC Tokyo, the hosting club employed an unconvincing impersonator in an optimistic attempt to assuage their fans' disappointment.)


Andres Iniesta is set to miss Vissel Kobe’s game at FC Tokyo on Sunday. In a bid to keep their biggest crowd in three years happy, FC Tokyo have hired this Iniesta impersonator 😂 https://t.co/xVE43aeXR2

There is a dedicated Iniesta merchandise stall outside Kobe's Noevir Stadium (Iniesta/Podolski half-and-half scarf, anyone?) and an Iniesta Bar selling Spanish snacks and a selection of wines chosen by the man himself. Kobe's fans have taken to waving Spanish flags for Iniesta and German ones for Podolski. Banking (quite literally) on the Iniesta effect, the club has increased season ticket prices for next season.

In September's Hanshin derby between Kobe and Gamba Osaka, public broadcaster NHK had an 'Iniesta-cam' following the former Spain midfielder for the whole game. For home matches, the club has initiated a new media accreditation system to cope with the huge increase in demand for press access.

"The media have been breathless in their coverage of him," says Dan Orlowitz, who works as a sports editor for the Japan Times. "When Iniesta plays, the mass media who don't usually cover football are covering it. You have to sign up for each game because they don't have room in the press box."

Even opposition players have been unable to prevent themselves from stealing admiring glances. After Kobe lost 5-3 to Kawasaki Frontale in their most recent outing, veteran midfielder Kengo Nakamura took to Twitter to relay a conversation that he had had with his son in the car after the game. Asked if he had enjoyed watching his dad in action, Nakamura's son replied that he had been too busy watching Iniesta. Having feigned indignation, Nakamura concluded the tweet, which went viral, by writing: "But you're right, my boy. It's Iniesta. Even I'm watching him."

Rakuten has capitalised on Iniesta's arrival by launching Iniesta TV, an online series of mini-documentaries charting the 34-year-old's adaptation to life in Japan. We see Iniesta touring Rakuten's headquarters in Tokyo, meeting his team-mates for the first time, taking part in Japanese lessons and, in one revealing episode, talking tactics with now ex-coach Yoshida over dinner with club staff at a Kobe restaurant.

The J.League has noticed a significant rise in global interest since the arrivals of Iniesta and his former Spain team-mate Fernando Torres, who joined Sagan Tosu in July. The number of people following the league's English-language Facebook page has mushroomed from around 50,000 to over 280,000. The J.League struck a $2 billion domestic broadcasting deal with the British-based Perform Group in 2016, and the league hopes the Iniesta effect will help bring foreign broadcasters to the party.

"At the moment our international broadcasting is not so big," says Takeyuki Oya, who heads up the J.League's international department. "But everybody in the world follows Iniesta, so it's a great chance for our international broadcasts to maximise exposure."

When Iniesta left Barcelona for Kobe in July, it was only the second time in his life that he had moved to a new city following his departure from his childhood home of Fuentealbilla to Barcelona at the age of 12.

B/R Football @brfootball

Andres Iniesta puts the finishing touches on his Barcelona masterpiece https://t.co/TrFlTcubfR

Iniesta and his wife, Anna Ortiz, and their three young children have taken up residence in a high-rise apartment building on Rokko Island, a man-made island southeast of central Kobe, and they have been assiduously documenting their efforts to explore their new home on social media.

There have been strolls around Kobe's Meriken Park and Harborland shopping district, sight-seeing trips to Osaka, Nara and Kyoto and visits to Tokyo Disneyland, Universal Studios Japan and Suma Aqualife Park. When the deadly Typhoon Jebi struck Japan in early September, Iniesta posted footage on Instagram of the torrential rain lashing his windows.

"Me and my family are very happy," Iniesta said. "It feels like we've been here forever. We're getting more settled in every day. It's a great experience for my wife and kids. So far it has been great."

Iniesta has praised Japan's culture and food (confessing to a weakness for local delicacy Kobe beef on at least one occasion), and although he inevitably speaks in Spanish most of the time in public, he remembers to say "konnichiwa" ("hello") and "arigato" ("thank you") at appropriate moments. When he was asked in an Iniesta TV interview what had most impressed him about his new home, he replied: "How the Japanese are always willing to help others."

"He's taking the time to see the country and enjoy the experience of being here," says Mabley. "I don't think that's Iniesta on a PR initiative, and it's something that has been positively received. There's a genuineness to it."

Swapping Barcelona for Kobe represented a radical departure for Iniesta in many ways, but he was no stranger to Japanese culture.

As a young child, he avidly watched a Japanese football cartoon called Captain Tsubasa (known in Spain as Oliver e Benji), and after being introduced to the media as a Kobe player in May, he was presented with a picture of himself in the team's crimson kit drawn by the show's creator, Yoichi Takahashi.

高橋陽一 Yoichi TAKAHASHI @0728takahashi


He visited Japan on no fewer than six occasions with Barcelona—three times for the Club World Cup and three times for pre-season friendlies. While in Japan for the 2011 Club World Cup, he made a positive impression on local fans after being photographed riding the Tokyo subway.

Barcelona have long enjoyed massive popularity in Japan, and in the small, physically unprepossessing but technically impeccable Iniesta, the country's football lovers say they have found a model for the kind of footballer that their own home-grown players can aspire to become.

"We like his playing style," says Oya from the J.League. "He's not a tall guy, he's not really a strong guy, but he's more technical and has intelligence. That matches with our Japanese playing style."

Iniesta's three-year contract at Kobe is believed to be worth $30 million per year and reportedly involved the purchase of millions of bottles of wine from his Bodega Iniesta winery. He further strengthened his ties to Japan last week by signing a multi-year boot deal with Japanese sportswear firm Asics.

It is just over 25 years since Brazil great Zico came out of retirement to play for Kashima Antlers in the fledgling J.League in a move that was credited with helping to put Japanese football on the map. The professional game is now thriving in Japan, and the hope is that Iniesta can help it reach even greater heights.

"Zico raised the level of football and also tried to show what a professional football player and a professional football club should be," says Oya. "Iniesta has joined one team, but he can be an influence like Zico was 25 years ago and push Japanese football up to the next level."

In the short term, Iniesta will only be thinking about Saturday's trip to 15th-place Nagoya Grampus, which could be described as the first relegation six-pointer of his career. Beyond that, however, his conquest of Japan is well under way.

"Right now, we are not going through the best phase," he said last week. "But I am convinced that the good times will come."