Iniesta was supposed to bring Tiki-Taka to Japan – but so far this is not going to work out properly

Stars like Andres Iniesta and Lukas Podolski play for Vissel Kobe. They are part of a worldwide project of the Japanese online trading group Rakuten. But there is no sporting success.

“If you want to shop, Rakuten is the place.” In the Noevir Stadium, this slogan glows in the club colours white on red, clearly visible in the middle of the scoreboard. The Japanese letters are so big that they steal the show even from the information about players’ names and scores. This is disturbing, one might think. But if you see the results of the last weeks, you can imagine: Isn’t it better if the really important things aren’t so obvious?

The home team Vissel Kobe, sponsored by the online trading company Rakuten, doesn’t achieve the desired results with their well-known purchases. For six weeks the team, in which two world champions and several national players are under contract, did not win a game. Last weekend’s last encounter ended in front of a home crowd with a 1-1 win over Nagasaki. Lukas Podolski, who came as a beaming star about a year ago, was particularly visible with his head shaking and shoulders hanging.

After the final whistle, the German captain pulled his teammates into the corner and bowed humbly to the fans. “You don’t have any other arguments,” he said after the game. The 2014 World Champion in Japan has already learnt so much: When you play a catastrophic figure, you have to make yourself as small as possible afterwards. In this respect, Podolski, who was brought to Kobe as team leader, was actually a role model in the last games.

Goals missed

Vissel Kobe is just the big disappointment of the Japanese football season. The goal of qualifying for the Asian Champions League can hardly be achieved. Kobe would have to finish third, but five rounds from the end of the season in Japan after the calendar year, the team are in 11th place. Despite the nominally strong offensive, the team scores only 1.2 goals per match on average, the goal ratio is negative.

The transfer of Andrés Iniesta hasn’t changed that much so far. Since the 34-year-old, who was the creative force behind FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team for many years, joined the squad two months ago, the team has fallen another five places in the table. Iniesta is currently injured, and he cannot yet be labelled a bad buy. But expectations are not only high, they are also marked by nervousness. Since the mid-1990s, when Michael Laudrup and the current head of FC Zurich sports, Thomas Bickel, were under contract in Kobe, Podolski and Iniesta have been the first really well-known foreigners. Nowhere is the interweaving of sport and advertising more obvious than at Vissel Kobe. The company Rakuten dominates the Japanese and parts of the Asian market, but wants to catch up with the top dog Amazon worldwide as quickly as possible.

Rakuten also sponsors the Tohoku Eagles, a baseball team from north-eastern Sendai that won the Japanese championship a few years ago. For a good year now, Rakuten’s lettering has also been emblazoned on FC Barcelona’s jersey. But the most important pillar in the marketing concept is Vissel Kobe. Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani is expected to spend around 30 million euros a year on his two stars Podolski and Iniesta alone.

FC Zurich

Opening up new advertising markets

The world champions help to make Rakuten, whose lettering is also emblazoned on the Vissel jerseys, known throughout Europe. For other important sales markets, public favourites from the respective countries are responsible. Two years ago, for example, Kim Seung Gyu, the national goalkeeper of the 50 million nation of South Korea, was hired. With defender Theeraton Bunmathan, Kobe also has a national player and star from Thailand, where 70 million potential customers live. With the Qatari national player Ahmed Yasser, who also has fans in Egypt due to the origin of his parents, there is even a representative of the Middle East in the squad. These two countries have a combined population of around 100 million.

And at least as far as the degree of popularity of Rakuten is concerned, the concept is not a failure so far. Vissel Kobe is present on several continents through its stars, and if Podolski and Iniesta succeed in making good moves, they spread like wildfire on the Internet. In the hometown of Kobe, the club, and thus its financier, is omnipresent anyway. The faces of the stars smile at every street corner.

Four weeks ago, however, it became clear that this was not enough for Rakuten. The club leadership then dismissed the coach and presented the successor before he could even get a work visa for Japan. Juan Manuel Lillo, often praised by Josep Guardiola, is to establish the Tiki-Taka style in Japan, with which Spain dominated world football for years. Betreels is a nice bright clean looking casino with excellent graphics.

Spanish coach Lillo, who is already in the coach’s seat even though he is not yet the official boss, is likely to lack the players. Passes are often half a meter too inaccurate, and the pace is lost in ball control. Lukas Podolski didn’t want to go into detail about the style of play: “Everyone has seen how we play at the moment,” he grumbled. It hasn’t looked good for weeks.