He’s here. Andres Iniesta, the iconic midfielder and winner of the World Cup, Champions League and Spain’s La Liga, finally made it to his new home in Kobe on May 26.
When it was announced at a press conference in Tokyo a couple days earlier that Iniesta, one of the greatest soccer players of his generation, would be joining Vissel Kobe, the news made global headlines.
But nowhere was there more excitement than in Kobe, where more than 8,000 fans started gathering from early morning to welcome the FC Barcelona legend.
Many of the fans were still in disbelief, amazed that a player of Iniesta’s caliber would be joining their local J.League squad.
“It’s amazing, amazing,” repeated Fernando Moreira, originally from Galicia in Spain, now living in Kobe, as he left Noevir Stadium in Kobe draped in a Spanish flag.
After a rousing rendition of Vissel Kobe’s anthem, Iniesta stepped on to the pitch where he joined Rakuten CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani on stage.
“This is a big challenge for me” Iniesta told the crowd, many of whom greeted the star with welcome signs written in Spanish.
“I aim to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Iniesta said, adding that his goal is to lead his new team to their first J.League title and then on to becoming champions of Asia.
Mikitani praised Vissel Kobe’s new recruit, adding that his goal was to bring someone in who could make a significant contribution to the club’s academy.
During the unveiling ceremony, a relaxed and smiling Iniesta wearing his new No. 8 shirt showed off some of his famous ball skills while the crowd cheered him on.
The cheers escalated when he approached the packed main stand and kicked 10 balls into the ecstatic crowd.
Afterwards, Iniesta greeted members of the club’s youth academy before huddling with them for a group photo.
“He’s the champion of everything,” Moreira said, still beaming from witnessing the arrival of Iniesta to Kobe, before listing off the myriad titles and honors Iniesta has collected over his illustrious career with Barca and Spain.
Ken Kotake, a veteran Kobe Vissel fan who follows Vissel to home and away matches shared Moriera’s happiness.
“I still can’t believe that Iniesta’s here and he’ll be playing for our team,” Ken said, as he waved his massive Kobe flag.
“We have never won a title, so above all what I want is Iniesta to help us get one,” said Ken.
It was a sentiment shared by his son Sho, who has been attending Vissel Kobe matches since he was two.
Like his father Ken, Sho was still in shock, but it was a welcome shock. Asked what message he has for Iniesta, Sho didn’t hesitate: “Please lead our team, and bring us our first title,” he said.
For Vissel Kobe fan Masakazu Hashimoto, it was all about being in the right place.
“I was so happy to catch the ball. It just landed in front of me,” Masakazu said.
Asked what he planned to do with his prize, Masakazu said he would spend plenty of time showing the ball off to his friends and family. “Then I am going to find a special place in my room to display it.”
Like nearly everyone in the 8,000 strong crowd Masakazu knew a great deal about Iniesta’s style of play.
“What I like about Iniesta is he’s understated but such a formidable player,” said Masakazu.
“I hope when Iniesta joins us in the second half of the season we get a real boost so that we can challenge for the title,” he added.
Another one of the lucky fans to catch one of the coveted balls was Hiroshi Mizusawa who has been following Iniesta’s career at Barcelona for many years. Although not originally a Vissel Kobe supporter, after catching the ball he underwent an instant conversion, declaring that he was “going to be a Vissel Kobe fan from this day forward.”
Asked how he felt after catching one of the footballs Hiroshi blurted out: “Thank you Iniesta. And Mikitani, you’re the best!”
Superfan Erika Maeda was in attendance with her eight-month old son, one of the youngest fans to come out and greet Iniesta before he sets off to join the Spanish team ahead of next month’s World Cup in Russia.
Erika, who echoed her fellow fans’ surprise that Iniesta was here in Kobe, said that his arrival would give soccer in Japan a great boost.
“It’s not only the impact Iniesta will have on Vissel, but also on the J.League, and for soccer in Japan.”
As fans left the stadium buoyed by the arrival of a soccer superstar wearing the Vissel Kobe uniform, the excitement was turning to anticipation, specifically Andres Iniesta’s first home game with Vissel Kobe.