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Iniesta says farewell to Japanese football with rare start for Kobe

KOBE, JAPAN (AP) – Andres Iniesta said goodbye to Japanese football on Saturday with his first league start of the season as title-chasing Vissel Kobe had to settle for a 1-1 draw at home to Consadole Sapporo.

The 39-year-old midfielder joined Kobe from Barcelona in 2018 but has found playing time increasingly hard to come by with the latest appearance taking his total minutes on the field after 18 games this season to just 94.

A sell-out crowd of 30,000 at Noevir Stadium gave Iniesta an affectionate send-off, organising a tifo display which showed the player wearing Kobe’s number eight shirt and holding banners that read “Gracias Andres”.

Iniesta was a peripheral figure in the first half as Sapporo took control and the lead after 22 minutes of the J-League game.

Thailand’s Supachok Sarachat reacted quickly to score from close range after goalkeeper Daiya Maekawa failed to deal with a cross from the right. By the time Matheus Thuler headed home a late goal to earn Kobe a point, Iniesta was watching from the bench.

Vissel Kobe’s Andres Iniesta is tossed up during his farewell ceremony following the J-League football match between Vissel Kobe and Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo in Kobe, Japan. PHOTO: AFP

He left the field in the 56th minute, taking off the captain’s armband, shaking hands with teammates and coaching staff and bowing to the fans who gave him a standing ovation.

It was his last action in what has been a mixed five-and-a-half years.

“I’m grateful for the love and respect the fans have shown me. I want to provide a situation they can enjoy and get excited about,” Iniesta said in a pre-game interview.

“There was difficulty in not being picked to play after putting my heart into training.

“I’ve experienced a lot of things over these five years, which is a long time.”

While injuries had an impact, Iniesta, who scored the only goal of the 2010 World Cup final as Spain beat the Netherlands, was unable to help Kobe to achieve its ambition of becoming the number one club in Asia.

The highest league finish for the team with Iniesta was third in 2021, with the team midtable in the other seasons.

He did, however, help the Kansai club to a first-ever trophy, winning the Emperor’s Cup in 2019.

The club’s best season since Iniesta arrived is the current campaign in which the veteran has played a limited part.

Kobe would have moved into first place with a victory over Sapporo but stayed in third following the draw.