For the second match in succession, Vissel Kobe’s fate looked like it would be decided in a penalty shootout. But the momentum that carried them through their AFC Champions League quarterfinal victory left them in the semi-finals, which saw the team fall in defeat to a penalty goal in the 119th minute. It was an agonizing end to Vissel’s incredible 2020 run in cup competitions, but it also showed how far the club has come towards achieving its goal of becoming the No. 1 soccer club in Asia.
Vissel Kobe’s cup success did not happen overnight. To understand how the club came so close to conquering the summit of Asian football, let’s take a look at some of the many milestones they hit along the way.
Podolski a first big step
In 2017, Vissel Kobe turned heads when it signed German legend Lukas Podolski. As Japan’s top professional soccer league, the J.League is no stranger to global talent, but rarely do FIFA World Cup winners grace the pitch in Japan. When former German national team icon Podolski arrived in Kobe and scored a brace in his debut, the world took notice.
Iniesta signs to Vissel from FC Barcelona
Rakuten’s close relationship with FC Barcelona was instrumental in helping bring Andres Iniesta to Japan. Widely recognized as one of the greatest and most successful players of all time, Iniesta’s signing shocked the football world; many pundits had expected him to sign with one of China’s big-spending clubs. But to everyone’s surprise, in the summer of 2018, Iniesta signed with Vissel Kobe.
When Iniesta was unveiled to fans as Vissel Kobe’s newest signing, thousands turned out to welcome the legend. Fans immediately recognized that he would change the club’s destiny, believing that wherever Iniesta goes, championships tend to follow.
A first (and second) championship title
When David Villa signed with Vissel Kobe in late 2018, he brought with him a resume as impressive as his former FC Barcelona and Spain national teammate Iniesta. Spain’s all-time leading goal scorer and Major League Soccer’s 2016 MVP, Villa provided Vissel Kobe with a lethal finisher that would give the Iniesta-led midfield a huge boost in attack.
Throughout the 2019 season, the Iniesta-Villa partnership flourished, culminating on January 1, 2020, with Vissel Kobe’s first-ever championship, the Emperor’s Cup, which was slated to be the last match of Villa’s decorated career. The trophy fulfilled the dreams and expectations of Vissel Kobe’s dedicated fanbase and earned the club a spot in the 2020 AFC Champions League. With the taste of victory still fresh, Vissel Kobe notched its second championship just over a month later, defeating the Yokohama F. Marinos to win the Fuji Xerox Super Cup.
2020 AFC Champions League
The competition started early in 2020, but was postponed in March due to pandemic-related precautions. After restarting in the fall, Vissel Kobe made it through the group stage and dispatched their opponents in the Round of 16. As usual, Iniesta was the midfield maestro, but he had clinical finishing from Vissel Kobe’s leading scorer Kyogo Furuhashi and Keijiro Ogawa, who netted a hat trick in the competition’s opening match.
It wasn’t until Vissel Kobe reached the quarter-finals that they saw their first real test in Korean two-time tournament winners Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Vissel’s mettle was thoroughly tested, but they defeated the Bluewings in a tense penalty shootout to earn their spot in the semi-finals.
However, the victory came at a high cost — Iniesta suffered a leg injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the tournament. Despite a valiant effort from his teammates, Iniesta’s field generalship and incisiveness were sorely missed in the semi-final, and Vissel Kobe’s dream of officially being crowned kings of Asian soccer were dashed.
As thrilling as the ride has been, the entire Vissel Kobe organization and Rakuten family may have felt a dash of disappointment in seeing their team come so far only to lose at the penultimate stage. Nevertheless, they will always be able to look back on 2020 as the year the club won its first two trophies and was within striking distance of a mythical treble.
And that, by any measurement, marks an incredible year.