FC Barcelona’s July 27 match against Vissel Kobe may have been its final game in Japan this preseason, but it’s not the last they’ll be seeing of the J.League side from Kobe.
Before taking the field for the second of two Rakuten Cup contests in Japan, Barca announced the beginning of a new chapter in the exciting and evolving partnership between the two sides, cemented by the news that Vissel Kobe have added former Barcelona defender Thomas Vermaelen to its squad.
At Vissel Kobe, the Belgium national will be reunited with former Barca teammates, Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Sergi Samper, as well as German World Cup winner Lukas Podolski, who Vermaelen previously played with at Arsenal during his time in the Premier League.
Following a closely contested game against fellow European powerhouse Chelsea FC earlier in the week that saw Barca come up a goal short, the Blaugrana were able to seize victory from Vissel courtesy of two goals by Carles Perez, a graduate of Barcelona’s world famous academy, La Masia. Adding to the game’s drama, the match marked the first time former Barcelona legend and Spain World Cup winner Andres Iniesta has faced off against his former club.
The partnership grows
Speaking before the game, Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani announced the strengthening of the partnership between five-time Champions League winners FC Barcelona and Vissel Kobe, which joined the Rakuten family in 2015.
The agreement, which comes into effect ahead of the 2019-2020 season, will allow both teams to “share knowledge and collaborate on a business level.”
“By helping each other, together we can make Vissel stronger,” said Mikitani, adding that it’s his goal for Vissel to “become the number one club in Asia.”
The partnership will include both clubs sharing reports on global players as well as team analysis.
The reigning LaLiga champions will help Vissel Kobe with scouting players worldwide, while Vissel Kobe will share its knowledge of Asian youth markets.
Elsewhere, the partnership is likely to see further collaboration between the two clubs, as Vissel looks to strengthen its youth academy by learning from Barcelona’s prestigious La Masia academy whose graduates include Iniesta, Messi and more recently, Barca’s Rakuten Cup standout, Carles Perez.
“Mikitani praised Vissel’s new signee, Thomas Vermaelen, as a “world-class center-back,” adding that the 33-year-old will be “a great help for Vissel Kobe to play beautiful football.”
“I’m very happy that Vermaelen joined our team,” Mikitani told reporters, singling out the former Barcelona player for his leadership skills.
“With the addition of Vermaelen to Vissel Kobe, it will help us make a great leap forward,” said Mikitani, who commented that to become one of the top teams in Asia, the Kobe side must strengthen their defense.
For Vermaelen, the transfer to Vissel Kobe comes off the back of nearly 15 years playing in some of the most competitive leagues in Europe. The Belgian said he was looking forward to the new challenge.
“Vissel Kobe is an ambitious team,” said Vermaelen. “I’m excited to play with Iniesta and my other Barca teammates.”
“A Dream Match”
On match day in Kobe, fans of the Spanish side flocked to Noevir Stadium, Vissel’s home ground, from early in the day.
“It’s a dream match between superstars,” said Yamachan, who describes himself as a “Barca ultra” or hardcore fan.
Many fans including Yamachan had been waiting eagerly to see Iniesta play against his former Barcelona teammates.
Younger fans were also thrilled to see superstars of the game, such as new Barca signee, Antoine Griezmann.
“I still can’t believe that I get to see such a momentous match right here in Kobe,” he added.
“We have been supporting Barcelona since we were small,” said Musashi Ogawa who was joined by his fellow soccer teammates. “Of course we want Barcelona to win, but what we want to see the most is a good game.”
Three generations of the Nishio family were on hand to watch the historic match and what they really wanted was a Vissel goal.
Niko, the youngest member of the Nishio family, was with her parents and grandparents to see her second game, having made her “debut” as a Vissel fan on the same day Iniesta made his debut for Vissel Kobe almost a year to the date.
For Niko, the Nishio family and the rest of the Vissel Kobe fans, the game between Barcelona and Vissel Kobe marks a new chapter in an exciting partnership.