Iniesta can help the J.League overtake China to become Asia’s biggest

John Duerden John Duerden

Andres Iniesta’s move to Vissel Kobe has put the J.League in the limelight ahead of the Chinese Super League.

It was generally assumed until recently that Andres Iniesta would head to China when he finally called time on his Barcelona career. Yet the private jet that took off from Spain headed further east than Chongqing, pretty much as far east as you can go in Asia – Tokyo.

In front of hundreds of journalists, the storied Spanish midfielder signed a three-year deal that is going to earn him a reported $90 million.

That is what the man who scored the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final can do. He has also won all there is to win in Europe and now he is in Asia. Helping Vissel Kobe become a force in Japanese football should just be a matter of time but lifting the profile of the club and the league in Japan, Asia and around the world is going to take just as much hard work.

But that is part of the remit. Japan e-commerce titan Rakuten owns Kobe and is bankrolling the deal.

The club is getting one of the best players in the world, a genuine star who should settle in very quickly and make Kobe into a better team. Yet off the pitch, he should help get more bums on seats. His new club has usually been a mid-table finisher, at best, with a seventh-place finish in 2016 the highest ever finish. Last season saw ninth. With an average attendance of around 18,000 in a stadium of 30,000 capacity, there is an obvious ability to attract bigger crowds. For the first time in the club’s history, there should be an average attendance of over 20,000.

That is just the start but there is more to it. Iniesta has an international profile that no other athlete in Japan can come close to matching. Rakuten, owns Kobe and sponsors Barcelona, have been talking about the 74 million followers that the player has attracted on social media. That is quite a figure and something that no other sports star or entity in the country can compete with.

Rakuten is a company keen to promote itself internationally and will benefit from having Iniesta available to help do so. It was noteworthy in the often insular world of Japanese football that the public unveiling of the star took place in English as well as Japanese and was streamed live online.

The J.League will also be rubbing its hands in anticipation. Lukas Podolski arrived at Kobe in 2017 and has not had quite the effect wanted on or off the pitch. The German has not always seemed enthusiastic about public relations for the club or league. It is to be hoped that Iniesta will be a little more active.

The league’s international profile does not match its quality and that is something that officials have been looking to change for some time and the quickest way to do so is to sign a big star.

The Chinese Super League knows that well. The league has received much more attention and has a considerably higher international profile than Japan due to all the international stars that arrived over recent years. The J.League had been drifting along but that looks to be changing. At a time when Chinese clubs have been reining in their spending, then Japan is starting to flex its financial muscles.

Well, Vissel Kobe is. Podolksi, another World Cup winner, and Iniesta together will make Kobe – by no means a giant in Japan – the most talked about J.League club by far around the world.

But more is needed if the J.League is to once again be seen as the number one in Asia. To create the kind of buzz that took talk of the Chinese Super League around Asia and the world, then other stars have to arrive.

This does not mean that Japanese teams should be risking their financial futures but with the money coming in from the 2017 online broadcasting deal that was worth two billion, there is scope to spend a little more. The news that Sagan Tosu have made an offer to Fernando Torres is interesting. Whether the striker is the right fit for the club and league is a different question but if a few more teams can track well-known stars rather than the usual Brazilians and South Koreans then the J.League is going to get the international profile it wants.

Whether this is a viable long-term strategy remains to be seen but there is no doubt that Iniesta has got people talking about the J.League around the world and, for a change, China is having to take a back seat. What he can do off the pitch is just as important as what he can do on it, probably even more so.

Photo credit: Vissel Kobe Facebook

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