On the first day of the new decade, Vissel Kobe made history when it captured its first-ever trophy — The Emperor’s Cup. The win capped off a memorable year for the Rakuten Group’s J.League club and proved to the soccer world that its investments in international superstars and top domestic talent are yielding results, bringing Vissel one step closer to its stated goal of becoming “the No.1 Club in Asia.”
New year, new growth
Even before kickoff, the match was destined to be historic as it marked the first sporting event at the recently-completed New National Stadium, which will serve as the flagship facility of the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. It also marked the first Emperor’s Cup held during Japan’s newly-inaugurated Emperor Naruhito’s Reiwa Era reign.
On such a historic night, Vissel lived up to the occasion by securing the club’s maiden trophy with a hard-fought 2-0 victory over one of Japan’s most successful soccer clubs, the Kashima Antlers, who were eager to claim their sixth Emperor’s Cup championship title. The Kobe outfit was dominant throughout the first half, netting both its goals before weathering a second half flurry from the betting-favorite Antlers.
The victory is a major feather in the cap for Rakuten, who took over ownership of the club in 2015 with the aims of building Vissel into an international powerhouse and raising the global visibility and credibility of Japanese soccer. In addition to the silverware, the win also earned Vissel Kobe automatic qualification for the prestigious AFC Champions League (Asian Champions League), where they will continue to pursue their lofty ambitions.
Internationalizing the Japanese game
Vissel captured global attention in 2017 when it signed one of Germany’s all-time greats, Lukas Podolski. Since then, the club has added Spain and FC Barcelona legends Andres Iniesta and David Villa, as well as fellow Barca midfielder Sergi Samper and most recently, defensive stalwart Thomas Vermaelen. The additions injected Vissel with a more fluid playmaking style alongside clinical and composed finishing. But perhaps the biggest impact has been the intangibles that come with knowing how to win when it matters most, a quality that its international superstars possess in abundance. The all-star cast of Vissel Kobe have a combined total of more than 60 major trophies throughout their remarkable careers — and in the case of Iniesta, Villa and Podolski, FIFA World Cup championships.
Villa goes out a champion
On a night that was historic in so many ways, the January 1, 2020 Emperor’s Cup championship game will also be remembered as the final competitive match of David Villa’s highly-decorated career. Having already announced his retirement in November, the Spanish legend — whose leadership and goalscoring proved invaluable throughout the season — fittingly went out as a champion.
With all eyes on Japan in 2020, Rakuten and Vissel Kobe couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the year.