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Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta joined Japan’s Vissel Kobe on Thursday, calling his J-League move an “important career challenge”.
“This is a very special day for me,” the 34-year-old World Cup winner said after signing his contract at a glitzy unveiling in Tokyo.
“I had a lot of offers, other clubs showed an interest in me,” added Iniesta, who is reported to have agreed a three-year deal with an annual salary of $30 million, comfortably a J-League record.
“But I chose Vissel Kobe because it was an interesting project. There was also a lot of trust and confidence in me as a person and also as a player — that was a big reason.”
Iniesta, who lifted 32 major trophies and made 674 appearances for Catalan giants Barca, was handed his trademark number eight shirt by Vissel owner Hiroshi Mikitani.
“I am confident that Iniesta’s leadership philosophy and his DNA will be a terrific inspiration for not only Vissel Kobe but Japanese football,” said Mikitani.
“His arrival in Japan will raise the profile of Japanese football globally. Iniesta will inspire and empower us to reach new heights in football in Japan. We are very proud to see this day come.”
The Spain icon’s decision to choose Kobe arguably represents Japanese football’s biggest transfer coup, with many top players now moving to cash-rich Chinese clubs in the twilight of their careers.
It also comes as a timely boost to the J-League, which used to attract luminaries such as Brazilian great Zico and former England star Gary Lineker when it began in 1993 but has struggled to attract marquee players in recent years.
Iniesta will join former Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski in the western port city of Kobe after he completed a move from Galatasaray last summer. Podolski was quick to send a “welcome” tweet to Iniesta on Thursday.
“I’d like to help take this club forward and help the J-League grow in Asia,” said Iniesta, who is set to join his new team mates after the World Cup in Russia.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know the Kobe players as quickly as possible to be able to help with that process.”
Danish star Michael Laudrup, himself a former Barcelona fan favourite and one of Iniesta’s boyhood heroes, also played for Vissel in 1996-97.