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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Andres Iniesta accepts 'very important challenge' after joining Japanese club Vissel Kobe

Confirmation of the 2010 World Cup winner's move came after Iniesta had tweeted early Thursday that he was going to his "new home" with his "friend" Mikitani, owner of the J-League club

Andres Iniesta, right, alongside Vissel Kobe owner Hiroshi Mikitani during a press conference in Tokyo. Behrouz Mehri / AFP
Andres Iniesta, right, alongside Vissel Kobe owner Hiroshi Mikitani during a press conference in Tokyo. Behrouz Mehri / AFP

Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta joined Japan's Vissel Kobe on Thursday, the club's owner Hiroshi Mikitani said, describing him as a "world-class" player.

"I am pleased to announce today that Andres Iniesta will be signing up to play with Vissel Kobe after his historic career at FC Barcelona," Mikitani told reporters in Tokyo.

The 34-year-old Spanish World Cup winner, who lifted 32 major trophies and made 674 appearances for Catalan giants Barca was unveiled by Vissel at a glitzy news conference in Tokyo.

"This is a very special day for me. This is a very important challenge for my career," said Iniesta, set to pocket an estimated annual salary of US$30 million (Dh110m).

"The J-League will hopefully spread in Asia. I'd like to help with that," added Iniesta.

Mikitani said Iniesta "plays the most beautiful soccer in the world."

Confirmation of Iniesta's move came after the player had tweeted earlier Thursday that he was going to his "new home" with his "friend" Mikitani, owner of the J-League club.

The two-time European Championship winner with Spain posted a photo of himself and Mikitani in what appeared to be a private jet, along with emojis of the Japanese flag and a football.

Iniesta, who famously scored the winning goal for Spain against the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final, was top of Mikitani's wishlist.

The billionaire businessman is also founder and chief executive of Rakuten, Barcelona's main sponsor, and had been personally involved in securing Iniesta's services, according to local media.

The Spain legend's decision to choose Kobe represents arguably Japanese football's biggest transfer coup with many top players now moving to cash-rich Chinese clubs in the twilight of their careers.

It comes as a timely boost to the J-League, which used to attract luminaries such as Brazilian great Zico and former England striker Gary Lineker when it began in 1993 but has struggled to attract marquee players in recent years.

Vissel Kobe announced on Twitter that it would hold a press conference to unveil a "new player" without directly confirming the open secret that it was Iniesta.

Iniesta announced last month that he would be leaving Barca at the end of the season, bringing to an end a 22-year association with the club.

The midfielder has enjoyed a glittering career, winning eight La Liga and four Uefa Champions League titles.

Social media lit up after Iniesta's tweet.

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Many Japanese fans retweeted the photo of the player shaking hands with Mikitani and welcoming him to the country, while another user posted a cartoon meme of Iniesta dressed in a wizard's cloak and waving a wand.

Kobe are sit sixth in the J-League standings after 15 games, having finished ninth in the table last term.

If the move is confirmed, Iniesta would join former Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski in the western Japanese port city after the German completed a move from Galatasaray last summer.

Danish legend Michael Laudrup, himself a former Barcelona fan favourite and one of Iniesta's boyhood heroes, also played for Vissel in 1996/97.

Iniesta had also been linked to a move to Chinese Super League side Chongqing Lifan but they, like Vissel initially, denied the rumours.

His departure from Barcelona drew strong tributes from the football world.

Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane said the midfielder should have won the Ballon d'Or in 2010 for clinching the World Cup with Spain, when he was beaten to it by Lionel Messi.

"I think he really deserved to win the Ballon d'Or when he won his World Cup, he had an exceptional year and he finished the World Cup by winning it, by scoring, so obviously that year he would have deserved it," Zidane said at the end of April.

It was the period when Iniesta was arguably at his best, as Barcelona won three consecutive league titles under Pep Guardiola, as well as the Champions League twice.

He is still going to play for Spain in this summer's World Cup before likely ending his international career.

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