Why Top-ranked Kobe Didn’t Really Stop Iniesta from Leaving the Team Before His Contract Expires: “I’m Finally Leaving” | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Why Top-ranked Kobe Didn’t Really Stop Iniesta from Leaving the Team Before His Contract Expires: “I’m Finally Leaving”

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Iniesta of J1 soccer team Kobe wipes away tears at his retirement press conference on May 25 (Photo: Kyodo News)

Andres Iniesta, 39, who joined Kobe on a permanent transfer from Spain’s prestigious Barcelona in 2006, has announced that he will leave the club before his contract expires this December, making the July 1 match his last. The team is currently leading the J1 League, a position that is hard to believe for a team that was on the verge of falling to the bottom of the J2 League last season. Why did this treasure, who scored the final goal that led Spain to victory at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and was brought to Japan by owner Hiroshi Mikitani, decide to leave the team before his contract expires?

I felt that the manager’s priorities were in a different place.

Iniesta, 39, was in tears at his farewell press conference on May 25.

“I have trained intensely in the last few months. I was ready to play and contribute to the team. The coach had different priorities. That was the reality that was given to me and I accepted that reality with respect. I have always imagined myself retiring here. Sometimes things don’t go as you hope and wish.”

Iniesta was the team captain who led Kobe this season. In the world of soccer, a captain who is not only an asset but also a spiritual pillar of the team is not likely to leave the team mid-season, unless there are very serious circumstances. Iniesta himself had drawn up a blueprint that he would “retire” at the end of this year after his contract with Kobe expired. He had been steadily preparing for his second career in Japan, including the launch of his own apparel brand last year, focusing on soccer shoes, and those around him believed that his retirement in Kobe was a foregone conclusion.

Why did the blueprint fall apart? One of the factors behind Kobe’s success this season as the top-ranked team in J1 is their style of soccer. Kobe’s goal is to win the ball as close to the opponent’s goal as possible, and once they have the ball, they attack at once with a high-pressing style of soccer. This style of soccer, in which long balls are the mainstay of the passing game, has worked well, and the team is in the top half of the standings. Iniesta’s style of play is at odds with the style of football of his predecessor, Iniesta, who was said to be the poster child for a style of football in which the ball is passed around in detail.

Iniesta was away from the team at the beginning of the season due to injury and to attend the birth of his wife. During that time, he got better with high-pressure soccer. When he came back, coach Takayuki Yoshida wanted to use Iniesta, but there was no place to use him because of the results. Naturally, it is believed that they communicated with each other, but they could not find a drop-off point that was satisfactory to both sides.

At the press conference held the day before the game this season, Director Yoshida made no special treatment of Iniesta, saying only that he would use the player who was in a good situation in the game in front of him.
It is said that Mikitani sometimes interferes with the Eagles’ baseball team when they are not doing well, but I have heard that this was not the case with Iniesta.

Some team officials even said that Iniesta had finally decided to leave the team. One of the executives of another club revealed, “Iniesta is gone, and this makes Kobe stronger and stronger. It’ s a nuisance.” Iniesta was no longer a player who had to be consoled at all costs.

Chairman Mikitani and Iniesta embrace after winning a game against Kashiwa in July 2018, when Iniesta was acquired (Photo: Kyodo News)

The acquisition of Iniesta was a “deal” made possible by his affinity with owner Mikitani.

However, the relationship between Iniesta and Hiroshi Mikitani (chairman and president of Rakuten Group), who became Kobe’s owner in 2004, was such that it is difficult to imagine Iniesta being released immediately after the club’s owner said no. Mikitani had a “honeymoon” relationship with Iniesta.

Mikitani has been a big fan of Iniesta since his days at Barcelona, saying that he is a great player whom he can respect. Rakuten, the parent company of Kobe, signed a four-year contract with Barcelona with an option for a one-year extension, and Iniesta came to Kobe in 2006 on a three-year contract worth 3.25 billion yen. At the time, a senior official of the Japan Football Association stated.

The owner Mikitani said he wanted to see Iniesta in the J-League, so he brought him to Kobe on a full transfer. We couldn’t have been more grateful.

With Rakuten money, which was growing rapidly at the time, Kobe signed a sponsorship contract not only for Iniesta but also for his club, Barcelona.

In ’21, he signed a contract to extend it for another two years. This was announced on Iniesta’s 37th birthday (May 11). In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Iniesta accepted the renewal of the contract with a reduced salary of 2 billion yen per year, saying, “I really appreciate the fact that you have made a lot of economic compromises” (owner Mikitani). The details of the contract have not been disclosed by Rakuten, Kobe’s parent company, as to whether or not there will be a penalty for leaving the team.

Rakuten Group has posted four consecutive fiscal years of losses due to the “burden” of its cell phone business.

Owner Mikitani, who was instrumental in the acquisition of Iniesta, is also troubled by Rakuten’s kitchen situation. Rakuten Group’s financial results announced in February of this year showed a consolidated loss of 133.8 billion yen for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2009, and a loss of 372.8 billion yen for the following fiscal year, 2010, both the largest losses ever recorded. The reason for this was the heavy burden of upfront investment in the cell phone business, which began at about the same time as the acquisition of Iniesta, and the company has dared to cut costs in various businesses.

After the friendly match between Kobe and Barcelona, Mikitani made a rare appearance in the mixed zone. His face was swollen, and by all accounts he looked exhausted. He completely ignored the questions of the reporters who were familiar with him. I have never seen Mikitani in such a devilish state.

The cell phone business, which he had declared “2011 will be a year of victory” at the financial results conference held in February before Iniesta’s departure, was not doing well at all, and he had no time to think about how he would welcome Iniesta, who had only six months left to go, on his last floral tribute. Incidentally, Iniesta, who was supposed to retire with Kobe, wants to continue his career. He has already received offers from Argentina and the Middle East.

Iniesta shed tears at the press conference. Are they tears of regret after all?  (Photo: Kyodo News)
Iniesta poses for a photo with children at the June 6 match against his old club Barcelona (Photo: Kyodo News)
Iniesta bows deeply at the match against Barcelona on June 6 (Photo: Kyodo News)

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