Collection of ageing superstars
respective Rugby World Cup matches, and a bar which sells Iniesta’s eponymous wine (apparently, Kobe indulged the midfielder’s request to include a deal with his family’s wine company, Bodega Iniesta, as part of his 3billion yen (£23million) annual contract).
Vermaelen is waiting for his English wife, Polly, and their two
‘The standard is good. Technically it is very quick. I think people would be surprised’
children, Raff and Ace, to arrive. “They should arrive at the start of December,” he says. “It’s been hard to find a house so we decided to keep the kids in Barcelona for a while, to keep them in school for a few months more.”
In the meantime, Vermaelen has been getting to know the city and the local customs. If he needs a guide, Podolski seems to have tried pretty much everything. The German’s social media features shots of him in a Japanese onsen (hot spring), in the sumo ring grappling with a rikishi (wrestler), traversing the famous zebra crossing in Shinjuku Tokyo, and at the rugby with Dan Carter.
Vermaelen has also been to a World Cup game, going to watch England’s victory over the United States at Kobe Misaki Stadium last week. “I never went to a match before,” he said. “I know it’s big in England. And Wales – Aaron Ramsay used to love it. When the Six Nations was on he would always watch it on the team bus. I was impressed. Wow, it’s competitive. You could hear the collisions from the stands.”
The question is, how competitive is Japanese football? Is it just another retirement home, a final payday, for players nearing the end of their career? Or could it grow? Could the presence of stars such as Podolski and Iniesta help attract others until it becomes an Asian superpower? Vermaelen is unsure. “The standard is good here,” he insists. “Technically good, very quick. A guy like Iniesta still stands out. He doesn’t lose that quality, believe me. But I think people would be surprised.
“I remember Kevin De Bruyne telling me when we last met up with the national squad, that he was out here with [Manchester] City and they played Yokohama, I think. And he was very impressed. Maybe people misjudge Japanese football because they don’t see it. I can assure you the level is good.”
Vermaelen still describes himself as “an Arsenal fan” albeit one who “no longer knows anyone on the team”. “They’ve all gone since my day,” the 33 year-old says. “[Theo] Walcott, Ramsey. It’s good to see Aaron doing well at Juventus”. He looks back fondly on those days. “They were probably the best of my career. Making the PFA team of the season in my first season, winning the FA Cup in my last. We should have won a title though.
“The Premier League is so difficult,” he says. “Everyone is spending so much now. And there are no easy games. I remember travelling away to places like Stoke and Wigan. It was always a fight. Never just a 5-0.”