It was a relief to be sitting in the air-conditioned offices of Vissel Kobe FC, near Kobe’s harbor front – a blessed escape from the sweltering heat of the Japanese summer – last August. Inside, the levels of ambition were as high as the temperatures outside. Masayuki Morii, business manager of Vissel Kobe FC, described the club’s 2018 target as a top three finish in the national  J.League; for 2019, a first-ever league championship was the goal.

That’s big talk from a team that had hitherto never finished higher than seventh and was not one of the country’s traditional soccer powers. These days however, Kobe is the most-talked about J.League club – both inside and outside Japan.

It all started in December 2014. That was when e-commerce giant Rakuten bought Vissel Kobe and started splashing out cash to recruit some of the most famous players in world football.

First came Lukas Podolski in early 2017, a World Cup winner with Germany in 2014. Then there was the big catch in the summer of 2018: Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta, the man who has won everything including the 2010 World Cup (he scored the winning goal in the final) and four UEFA Champions League titles with Spanish giant Barcelona.

“We couldn’t believe it when Iniesta signed,” said Yuto Tanaka, a fan of the club since 2001 – four years after it came into existence. “He is a player we watched on television for years and he was one of the best in the world. We think he still is. He is so popular and famous it feels almost like he doesn’t just play for us but for all of the J.League.”

When the midfielder arrived in the summer of 2018, Kobe’s crowds surged from 17,000 to 25,000 at home and stadiums were equally full at away games.  When he was injured before a game at FC Tokyo, the home club – which had sold all 50,000 tickets, almost double its average attendance – hired an Iniesta lookalike to greet the crowd.

On the pitch, Iniesta showed flashes of why he is regarded as one of the best players of the 21st century though he was not always on the same wavelength with his new team-mates.  As well as the skills, he also brings a winning mentality. “After a run of six or seven defeats when I first got here, I was surprised how well the fans took the bad results,” Iniesta said ahead of the 2019 season kick-off. “The Japanese take losing in a very different way to how we do in Spain. I’ve found it hard to adapt to that philosophy. I have always been very competitive. I have never liked losing.”

Yet that happened a little too often in the second half of last year’s season. When Iniesta arrived, Kobe still had hopes of that top-three finish, but a run of bad results meant it all ended in a disappointing 10th place.

Still, Kobe continues to strengthen its line-up – helped by Iniesta. First came David Villa, another ex-Barcelona striker and member of the Spanish team that won the 2010 World Cup. Then, on March 7, Kobe unveiled its latest addition, former Barca star, Sergi Samper.

“Andres was key, he called me many times and told me it was a good club to grow at,” Samper said. “Andres has told me that Kobe want to play like Barca, and that their style of play will suit me and I’ll be able to enjoy myself.”

As the club’s spending and profile has risen, so have expectations ahead of the 2019 season that kicked off in February. “There is huge pressure,” said Alan Gibson, Kobe resident and editor of JSoccer  magazine. “Every team that plays Vissel will be playing a cup final, giving their best to try to prove something. Every other teams’ fans will be jealous of the financial backing and Vissel will become everyone’s hated team.”

That makes it even harder for Vissel Kobe to win a first title – but then jumping from 10th in 2018 to first in 2019 was always likely to be beyond the team this season. If so, it remains to be seen if owner and Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani is willing to give Spanish coach Juan Manuel Lillo, the fourth boss in 14 months when appointed last August, time to build for the future.

Investments pay off

“Trophies can be won as the team gels, young talent emerges and gains from playing with the likes of Iniesta and Villa,” predicted Gibson. “Lillo is the key – not Iniesta, or Villa. If Mikitani is patient and accepts that Vissel might not win something this season and allows the team to grow, good things will come.”

It is a big “if.” “I am not sure he can do that though and may hit the panic button when Vissel are in ninth place after 10 games,” Gibson added. “So, Vissel players will be under pressure to win now.”

That Vissel – despite their star-studded lineup – are not expected to become champions this season, suggests that all is not well in J.League football.

The competition kicked off in 1993 and soon became one of Asia’s biggest and best. Yet there was a sense around the start of this decade that things had stagnated a little. Average attendances had fallen slightly, from around 19,000 a decade ago to just over 17,000 in 2014. The quality of imports and coaches was declining and the best young local talent was heading overseas at an increasing rate.

This was worrying enough even before it was placed alongside the growth of the Chinese Super League. There, Chinese clubs had started spending big from 2011 onwards. Some of the top names in the world of football could be found in the Chinese Super League, making it the most talked-about Asian league, and one that soon had bigger attendances than its Japanese rival.

It was in the summer of 2016 that some welcome news broke: The J.League sold its domestic online broadcasting rights to Perform Group, a UK-based media company, for $2 billion over 10 years. It was a significant investment and a signal of confidence in the tournament’s future.

Most-watched Asian league

Those funds appear to have made a difference. In 2017 Urawa Reds lifted the cup in the Asian Champions League, the first Japanese triumph in that format since 2008. The feat was repeated by the Kashima Antlers in the following season.

The J.League hopes to become the most-watched Asian league elsewhere on the continent. The organization has been moving into Southeast Asia to sign agreements and broadcast deals with federations there. In a bid to increase its popularity, J.League clubs have signed up some of the biggest ASEAN stars. After a number of failures, the policy is starting to bear fruit. Chanathip Songkrasin, Thailand’s most popular player, has impressed for Consadole Sapporo, and his exploits are closely-watched back home.

But for an increasing number of Vissel Kobe fans, concerns are strictly local. Can their team, now bolstered by the biggest stars in the league become champions?

Even if that does not happen this season, both Vissel Kobe and the J.League look to be on an upward trajectory.