Watch: The story of Andres Iniesta and why he chose Japan
Andres Iniesta is one of football’s most decorated players, having won everything for both club and country. But why did he decide to switch Barcelona for Japan in 2018?
Due to modern coaching and nutrition, we are now seeing more players continuing to play into their late thirties at the highest level.
When Iniesta left for Japan in 2018 he was only 34-years-old and while he was no longer at the peak of his powers, he certainly had plenty left in the tank.
Since moving to Vissel Kobe, Iniesta has played 117 matches, scoring 26 goals in the process.
On arrival in Japan Iniesta said, “This is a very special day for me. This is a very important challenge for my career”
“The J-League will hopefully spread in Asia. I’d like to help with that.”
The J-League had previously had a reputation for attracting some of the world’s biggest stars, with the likes of Gary Linekar and Michael Laudrup.
More recently the likes of Diego Forlán, Lukas Podolski and David Villa have all featured in the league, but Iniesta is undoubtedly the biggest name.
On signing for Vissel Kobe, Iniesta was handed a reported $30million annual salary on a three-year deal.
The Spanish midfielder had achieved everything he could have possibly won at Barcelona and he was ready for a fresh challenge.
It is also worth noting that Barcelona had been on a steady decline since the 14/15 season and you could argue Iniesta got out at the right time.
Barcelona did win the La Liga title in Iniesta’s final season with the club, with him making 45 appearances across all competitions.
Although by this point, Barcelona’s struggles in Europe had already begun.
Having been 4-1 up in the first leg, Barcelona crumbled by losing 3-0 to Roma in the second leg and they crashed out of the Champions League in humiliating fashion.
As Iniesta didn’t want to face the possibility of facing Barcelona when he left, a move outside of Europe was his only option.
Prior to Iniesta’s arrival in Japan, Vissel Kobe had finished ninth in the league.
The Japanese league is unlike European leagues as it runs throughout the course of a calendar year and starts up in February each season.
As this is the case, Iniesta joined Vissel Kobe halfway through their season in 2018 and they ultimately finished in 10th place.
Iniesta scored three goals and got three assists in his debut season where he made 14 appearances in total.
Since his arrival in Japan, several former Barcelona players have joined Iniesta at Vissel Kobe.
The likes of David Villa, Sergi Samper, Thomas Vermaelen and now Bojan have all linked up with their former teammate.
The J-League is wildly unpredictable each year, which is shown by the league having seven different winners in the last 10 years.
This unpredictability can be seen by Vissel Kobe’s recent seasons.
In 2020 they fell to a disappointing 14th placed finish and then in 2021 they climbed all the way to 3rd.
Despite not getting his hands on a league trophy in Japan, Iniesta has enjoyed some success in domestic cups.
In 2019 Vissel Kobe lifted the Emperor’s Cup, in 2020 they won the Japanese Super Cup and he helped them qualify for the AFC Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.
Iniesta did suffer a major injury setback in December 2020 in the Asian Champions League quarter-finals as he required surgery on his hamstring.
The injury meant that Iniesta missed 18 matches until he eventually returned in May 2021.
Since Iniesta’s arrival, Vissel Kobe had been on a steady upwards trajectory, although this season has been a significant fall from grace.
They currently find themselves rooted to the bottom of the J-League with just 11 points after 17 gameweeks.
In the J-League the bottom two sides are automatically relegated to the second division and the third from bottom side enters into a relegation playoff.
The last time Vissel Kobe were relegated was in 2012 and they spent one year outside of the top flight.
So what’s next for the Spanish midfielder?
In November last year, he signed a new two year contract with the club which will keep him at Vissel Kobe until at least 2023.
He has featured in 16 of their 17 league matches this season and has scored two goals and got three assists.
As long as Vissel Kobe manage to claw themselves out of the relegation zone, it seems as if he’s happy to stay in Japan for the foreseeable future.
There’s no doubting that his heart is still with Barcelona though and he has hinted at a return to the Nou Camp in the future.
With Xavi currently at the helm, we certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see Iniesta in a coaching role in the near future.