Iniesta ideal spear­head for Kobe’s big- time bid

Span­ish ma­gi­cian’s pres­ence in the J League shows a bold new spirit of am­bi­tion in Japan , writes John Duer­den

The Observer - Sport - - Football -

There is no short cut to win, says one of the slo­gans on the walls of Vis­sel Kobe’s head­quar­ters on the fourth fl oor of a non­de­script build­ing on a quiet stretch of the city’s har­bour front. Sign­ing An­drés Iniesta and his fel­low World Cup- win­ner Lukas Podol­ski is a fairly big step in the right di­rec­tion, how­ever, for a team who had be­come used to mid- ta­ble fin­ishes at best in the J League.

Tem­per­a­tures in Japan were hot enough in Au­gust be­fore a siz­zling strike from Iniesta against Ju­bilo I wata brought the house down. Four days later he did some­thing sim­i­lar against Tokyo, also in front of a full house. The for­mer Barcelona player has not just been keep­ing de­fend­ers and jour­nal­ists busy ; his goals have added sig­nif­i­cantly to the work­load of Kobe’s busi­ness depart­ment.

“In a nor­mal year Kobe sells 150,000 mer­chan­dise items but in the two weeks after Iniesta ar­rived in July we sold 50,000,” Masayuki Morii, Kobe’s busi­ness man­ager, says . “We didn’t have enough time to pro­duce more but next year we will be ready. We want Kobe to be­come a big team.”

The tar­get is the Ja­panese ti­tle in 2019 and the Asian Cham­pi­ons League a year later. “In the past we were around eighth but at least this year we have to be in the top three,” Morii add s.

That may not hap­pen, de­spite Iniesta’s im­pact ( Podol­ski has been hit- and- miss and of­ten in­jured since his ar­rival in 2017) . Although the club were threat­en­ing a top- three chal­lenge, in­con­sis­tent form has them down in sev­enth with nine games to play. If Iniesta ca nnot make enough of a dif­fer­ence this sea­son, there are other ways in which he can help. “His team­mates are very ex­cited and they say how amaz­ing he is ,” Morii sa ys. “Other play­ers will want to come here, too. We don’t know if more big names are on the way but we know we have to make use of Iniesta while he is here.”

The same is true off the pitch, where Kobe are equally am­bi­tious. “We have to get more fans, ex­tend the sta­dium so that after he leaves we can main­tain a high level,” Morii sa ys. “We have been learn­ing about this kind of football man­age­ment from Barcelona.”

The rea­son Barcelona have been help­ing out is be­cause of Rakuten. The Ja­panese e- com­merce ti­tan is the shirt spon­sor of the Cata­lan club but the com­pany, founded by the Kobe na­tive and multi bil­lion­aire Hiroshi Mik­i­tani, ha s been ac­tive in Ja­panese sports for longer, own­ing a base­ball team, To­hoku Rakuten Golden Ea­gles, and, from 2014, Kobe, who it also spon­sors. The club are on the fourth fl oor ; Rakuten on the eighth. The lift gets plenty of use.

This is the first time a Ja­panese football team ha ve been used, at least in part, for in­ter­na­tional brand­ing, fol­low­ing a num­ber of Chi­nese com­pa­nies that have got in­volved in the game in re­cent years in or­der to fur­ther their for­tunes, whether po­lit­i­cal, busi­ness or both. It is partly thanks to the rise of the Chi­nese Su­per League that Kobe can say there is no jeal­ous y from the tra­di­tional giants of Ja­panese football. “We think that the big teams have a favourable view of our spend­ing,” Morii says. “We have brought big play­ers to Japan.” n.”

It is de­bat­able whether the he re­cruit­ment of big- name play­ers lay­ers that started in China in 2011 11 has taken the Chi­nese league ahead head of its Ja­panese ri­val in terms of qual­ity but there is no doubt that when it c ame to the re­spec­tive brands, rands, profi les and at­ten­dances, the J League was be­ing left be­hind by its neigh­bour.

China’s rise came when the J League, es­tab­lished in 1993, had hit some­thing of a plateau. eau. The stan­dard of im­ports fell, l, with the same true of the coaches. s. At­ten­dances had also lev­elled ed out at around 17,000 to 18,000. The de­par­ture of tal­ented Ja­panese ese play­ers to Europe at ever- younger ounger ages did not help. It had all gone a lit­tle fl at. Yet just as the Chi­nese hi­nese gov­ern­ment started to rein in the spend­ing in 2017, Japan re­ceived a sig­nif­i­cant boost. Do­mes­tic on­line broad­cast­ing rights for the next decade were sold for $ 2 bn. It was a sig­nifi cant vote of confi dence in the J League and an im­por­tant out­side rev­enue source. The ar­rival of Fer­nando Tor­res at Sa­gan Tosu this sum­mer showed that even the most un­fash­ion­able clubs could splash cash.

The J League has been try­ing to im­prove its pop­u­lar­ity around Asia, sign­ing nu­mer­ous part­ner­ships with fed­er­a­tions and broad­cast­ers, es­pe­cially in the south­east­ern re­gion. At fi rst there was lit­tle in­ter­est. With­out their own play­ers

‘ In a nor­mal year the club sells 150,000 mer­chan­dise items. In two weeks after he ar­rived we sold 50,000’

to fol­low, fans in In­done­sia, Viet­nam or Malaysia were not go­ing to watch ; although some lo­cal stars headed north, none made an im­pact.

This sea­son, how­ever, there are three Thai­land in­ter­na­tion­als per­form­ing well in Japan’s league. Their ex­ploits are fol­lowed closely back home, where there is great pride that one , Theerathon Bun­mathan, counts a cer­tain Span­ish World Cup win­ner as a team mate in Kobe.

Now the chal­lenge is help­ing Iniesta spread that pop­u­lar­ity else­where. There may not be a short cut to suc­cess, but if any­one can find a way through, it is that man.

AFLO/ REX/ SHUT­TER­STOCK; ETSUO HARA/ GETTY IM­AGES

An­drés Iniesta has cre­ated some stun­ning mo­ments for Kobe, while Lukas Podol­ski ( left) is in his sec­ond year at the club

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