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