MADRID: Andres Iniesta looks poised to join Japan’s Vissel Kobe after tweeting on Wednesday that he was going to his “new home” with his “friend” Hiroshi Mikitani, owner of the J-League club.
The 34-year-old Barcelona icon 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 the founder and CEO of Rakuten, Barcelona’s main sponsor, and had been personally involved in securing Iniesta’s services, according to local media.
Iniesta announced last month that he would be leaving Barca at the end of the season, bringing an end to a 22-year association with the club.
The midfielder has enjoyed a glittering career, winning eight La Liga and four Champions League titles.
Social media lit up after Iniesta’s tweet.
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 currently sit sixth in the J-League first division standings after 15 games played, having finished ninth in the table last term.
If the move to Kobe is confirmed, Iniesta will 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.
– China interest –
Iniesta had also been linked to a move to Chinese Super League side Chongqing Lifan but they, like Vissel initially, denied the rumours.
If confirmed, the Spain legend’s decision to choose Kobe would represent 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 would also come 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’s departure from Barcelona drew strong tributes from the football world.
Real Madrid coach 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 (the winning goal in the final), 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.