Spanish legend Andres Iniesta’s Japanese debut ended on a flat note Sunday as Vissel Kobe crashed to an embarrassing 3-0 home defeat by J-League strugglers Shonan Bellmare.
The former Barcelona playmaker came off the bench after 58 minutes with Kobe already trailing by two goals and, despite one or two trademark flicks, failed to inspire a comeback in front of a crowd of 26,000.
Meanwhile, Iniesta’s one-time Spain teammate Fernando Torres also tasted defeat in his J-League debut for Sagan Tosu, who flopped 1-0 at home to Vegalta Sendai.
Expectant fans, many of them clutching Spain flags, were disappointed to learn that Iniesta had been named among the substitutes for his first game since joining Kobe in the summer.
The 34-year-old’s first touch was a silky turn on the halfway line, releasing teammate Takuya Yasui, who promptly gave the ball straight to an opponent, underlining the gulf in class between the J-League and La Liga.
Visiting Bellmare, who began the day two spots above the relegation zone, had clearly not read the script as goals from Keisuke Saka and Mitsuki Saito gave them a two-goal lead.
Iniesta, who has reportedly signed a three-year deal on a J-League record annual salary of $30 million, watched helplessly as Bellmare went 3-0 up thanks to a Shunsuke Kikuchi tap-in 10 minutes after the Spaniard joined the fray.
The 2010 World Cup winner had fans off their seats late on when he blazed a left-foot volley wide, but ultimately there was little he could do to prevent Kobe slipping to their sixth J-League defeat of the season.
“It’s a shame we lost because I don’t like losing,” Iniesta told reporters.
“But this is just the first step of an amazing new adventure. It was a physical game that showed the quality of the J-League.”
– Commercial success –
Kobe could at least point to the silver lining that Iniesta’s arrival has already proven a commercial success after slipping to sixth in the table.
Analysts have predicted the Spanish maestro has generated over $100 million in tickets sales and merchandising revenue.
Iniesta, who lifted 32 major trophies and made 674 appearances for Barcelona, joined Vissel after turning down an offer to move to China.
He produced several cute touches after finally making his debut but cut a forlorn figure as he trudged off the pitch after the final whistle.
Iniesta’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 striker Gary Lineker when it began in 1993 but has struggled to attract big-name players in recent years.
Torres arrived in Japan over the summer to comparatively less fanfare than Iniesta to join Sagan, who remain marooned in the J-League drop zone after their ninth defeat of the campaign.
The former Atletico Madrid and Liverpool striker had a header saved but had few other clear-cut opportunities after coming on as a substitute early in the second half.