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Barcelona legend Iniesta signs with Japanese club Kobe

Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta has signed with Japanese club Vissel Kobe, he announced at a press conference in Toky...

Posted: May 24, 2018 12:05 PM
Updated: May 24, 2018 12:05 PM

Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta has signed with Japanese club Vissel Kobe, he announced at a press conference in Tokyo Thursday.

"This is a very special day for me. It's a very important challenge in my sporting career. Both me and my family are looking forward to be here," Iniesta told a crowd of 300 journalists after he was presented with a number 8 playing shirt.

Vissel Kobe's chairman Hiroshi Mikitani appeared alongside the player at the press conference, saying that Iniesta will "inspire Japan and Asian football to bring it in to the next phase."

Late Wednesday, the 34-year-old Iniesta posted a photo on Twitter of him shaking hands with Mikitani, the billionaire chief executive of Rakuten and chairman of the J1 League side, aboard Mikitani's private jet.

"Heading to my new home, with my friend (Mikitani)," Iniesta wrote in Spanish and English.

While the price tag of the Kobe deal has yet to be revealed, it is expected to be worth millions and also involve the purchase of millions of bottles of Iniesta's own brand wine. Bodega Iniesta is the largest producer in Spain's Castilla-La Mancha region.

Kobe are currently sixth in the J1 League table, after a ninth place finish in the 2017 season.

Last month an emotional Iniesta announced that, after 22 years as a Barcelona player -- 16 of which a first-teamer -- this would be his last season with his long-time club. The announcement prompted a lengthy ovation from assembled journalists.

The Spanish playmaker graduated from Barcelona's storied La Masia youth system along with players like Lionel Messi, Xavi and Carles Puyol, and was instrumental in over a decade of success for the Catalan club.

Iniesta, until now a one-club footballer, joined the Spanish giant's academy when he was 11 years old, and has been a mainstay of the first team since the age of 17.

He departs European football as one of the game's most decorated players -- on a personal level, winning the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award for the 2011/12 season, as well as at both club and international level. This season he helped Barcelona win both the 2017-18 La Liga and Copa del Rey.

He's also been indispensable in his role for the Spanish side, and it was his goal that beat the Netherlands and handed Spain their first World Cup in 2010.

The long goodbye - Barefooted Andr-s Iniesta sits alone in empty stadium until 1am

Much-loved player

Former Barca teammate Neymar has praised Iniesta's personality, telling CNN Sport he's a "natural on and off the pitch," while his long-time midfield partner Xavi has said he's captivated by his former teammate's technical ability.

"Technique? I think the best player is Andres Iniesta," he said, while also praising his on-field vision -- and sense of humor.

Former coach Pep Guardiola, who oversaw some of Barcelona's most successful years, said that the club's recent history "would not (have been) possible" without the playmaker. "In a few case, and this is one of them, he helped me to understand the game better."

Even city rivals Espanyol called him a "genius," who is "loved by all aficionados of football," adding "many thanks and much luck" in a tweet following his announcement.

In 2016, trade publication The Drinks Business reported that Bodega Iniesta, which was developed by the footballer and his father with funds generated by his first professional contract at Barcelona, produced around 1.2 million bottles a year, around 65% of which was exported.

Upon arrival in Kobe, Iniesta will experience a very different lifestyle from the Mediterranean existence he's grown used to in Barcelona.

The city is the sixth largest in Japan, with a population of around 1.5 million, and is situated nearby to similarly sized Osaka and Kyoto, on the southwest portion of Japan's main island Honshu.

So far there is no word on how the regional delicacies will pair with the wines of Bodega Iniesta, of which there will likely soon be a sudden influx.

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