FC Barcelona kicked off the Rakuten partnership in style in New Jersey on Saturday, defeating Italian team Juventus in the first match played in their new Rakuten jerseys.
Rakuten Chairman and CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani and FC Barcelona President Josep Maria Bartomeu were both on hand at MetLife Stadium to see the Blaugrana’s star striker Neymar Jr. put away two goals in the first 30 minutes of the match. Juventus managed to pull back one goal in the second half but were unable to draw level with Barca.
“What a great start to the partnership!” Mikitani enthused after the match.
Prior to kick-off, the players and other dignitaries took to the pitch alongside Mikitani in a special ceremony to welcome Rakuten as the new sponsor.
After walking along a red and blue Rakuten carpet to mid-field, Mikitani, along with First and Third Vice Presidents, Jordi Cardoner and Jordi Mestre, and former FC Barcelona player Thierry Henry, pulled back a large curtain to reveal a giant replica of the new Barca shirt, complete with Rakuten logo.
The ecstatic American soccer fans didn’t have to wait long to see the new shirt on their favorite players. Minutes later the team took to the pitch, with superstars Neymar Jr. and Lionel Messi drawing deafening cheers in a stadium usually reserved for American football teams the New York Giants and New York Jets.
Messi, Neymar Jr. and team then joined Mikitani midfield in front of the giant uniform for a photograph, a moment he later commented was a “once in a lifetime experience.”
Once the match had started, Barca’s star forwards didn’t waste any time, making three early rushes deep into Juventus territory. That set the tone and it was in the 15th minute that Neymar Jr. made an impressive run through Juve defenders before finding the upper right corner of the goal. The young Brazilian star celebrated the moment with a run to the touchline and a leap into the air, pumping his fist.
In the 25th minute, Neymar Jr. was at it again, getting past five defenders before shooting low to evade goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
The victory was sweet for Ernesto Valverde, as it was his first game with the team as manager. “There were many great things about today’s match,” he told journalists at the post-match press conference. “The application of the players, their intention to dominate throughout the match – even against a strong rival.”
The match was Barca’s first after the summer break and its first appearance in the U.S. tournament of the International Champions Cup, an 8-team competition between top European clubs. FC Barcelona’s U.S. tour, supported by Rakuten, next sees them head to Washington, D.C. to meet Manchester United on July 26 and then to Miami for an El Classico matchup against Spanish rivals Real Madrid on July 29.