5/24/2018 11:41:24 AM

Barcelona and Spain legend Iniesta signs for Japan's Vissel Kobe

Barcelona and Spain legend Iniesta signs for Japan

Tokyo: Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta joined Japan's Vissel Kobe on Thursday, the club's owner Hiroshi Mikitani said, describing him as a "world-class" player.

"I am pleased to announce today that Andres Iniesta will be signing up to play with Vissel Kobe after his historic career at FC Barcelona," Mikitani told reporters in Tokyo.

The 34-year-old Spanish World Cup winner, who lifted 32 major trophies and made 674 appearances for Catalan giants Barca was unveiled by Vissel at a glitzy news conference in Tokyo.

"This is a very special day for me. This is a very important challenge for my career," said Iniesta, set to pocket an estimated annual salary of $30 million.

"The J-League will hopefully spread in Asia. I'd like to help with that," added Iniesta.

Mikitani said Iniesta "plays the most beautiful soccer in the world."

The Spain legend's decision to choose Kobe arguably represents Japanese football's biggest transfer coup, with many top players now moving to cash-rich Chinese clubs in the twilight of their careers.

It also comes as a timely boost to the J-League, which used to attract luminaries such as Brazilian great Zico and former England star Gary Lineker when it began in 1993 but has struggled to attract marquee players in recent years.

Iniesta will join former Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski in the western Japanese port city after the German completed a move from Galatasaray last summer.

Danish legend Michael Laudrup, himself a former Barcelona fan favourite and one of Iniesta's boyhood heroes, also played for Vissel in 1996-97.

Kobe currently sit sixth in the J-League first division standings after 15 games played, having finished ninth in the table last term.

Iniesta, who famously scored the winning goal for Spain against the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final, had been top of Mikitani's wishlist.

The billionaire businessman is also the founder and CEO of Rakuten, Barcelona's main sponsor, and was heavily in involved in the deal that brought Iniesta to Japan.

Iniesta announced last month that he would be leaving Barca at the end of the season, bringing to an end a 22-year association with the club.

The midfielder has enjoyed a glittering career, winning eight La Liga and four Champions League titles. 

He played his final game for Barcelona in a 1-0 win over Real Sociedad at the weekend in an emotional farewell to the club he joined as a schoolboy.

Amid fevered speculation as to his next move, the 34-year-old had on Wednesday posted a photo of himself and Mikitani in what appeared to be a private jet, along with emojis of the Japanese flag and a football.

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