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Rakuten nabs soccer star Iniesta as it seeks to expand overseas

Spanish player joins Vissel Kobe in key growth plan for Japanese e-retailer

Spanish soccer star Andres Iniesta, right, and Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani hold a news conference in Tokyo on May 24. (Photo by Akihide Anzai)

TOKYO -- The Japan Professional Football League -- or J League -- soccer club Vissel Kobe announced on Thursday that Spanish soccer star Andres Iniesta will join from FC Barcelona after this year's World Cup in Russia, set to conclude in mid-July.

While the news will thrill Japanese soccer fans, it is also key to the strategy of the owner of Vissel Kobe, e-commerce giant Rakuten, in its plans to expand business abroad.

"Iniesta's technique, the greatest in the world, as well as his character will influence not only our club, but also Japan and Asian soccer," said Rakuten founding chairman and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani at a news conference attended by hundreds of journalists.

According to media reports, Iniesta will receive 25 million euros per year to play for Vissel Kobe. The duration of the contract was not clear.

Mikitani said he hoped having a high-profile player like Iniesta would help J League attract international attention, noting that the Spaniard had over 70 million followers on social media and considerable international influence. 

Iniesta is a soccer icon, having served as Barcelona's captain for three seasons and winning the European Champions League tournament four times. As part of the Spanish national team, he scored the only goal to defeat the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa.

"I chose Vissel Kobe because they trust me," Iniesta said. "I want to contribute to J League in increasing its presence in Asia," he added.

Rakuten has been aggressively investing in overseas sporting-related ventures. It sponsored FC Barcelona in 2016 with 220 million euros, and the Oakland, Calif.-based Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association in 2017 with an undisclosed amount.

Mikitani told Nikkei last year he felt Rakuten's overseas recognition had improved dramatically, both with consumers and business partners, as a result of its sponsorship of FC Barcelona.

Rakuten has been increasing its customer base through its Rakuten Card program and a points-based incentive system. It has also entered Japan's mobile phone market to become the fourth largest carrier, after NTT DocomoKDDI and Softbank.

But Rakuten's main e-commerce business faces fierce competition. In 2016, Amazon surpassed Rakuten to take top spot in the domestic market, according to Euromonitor International. In 2017, Amazon had about 23% of the market, compared with about 18.5% for Rakuten, widening the gap from the year before.

There is also fierce competition in the broader Asian market, notably from China's Alibaba Group Holding and India's Flipkart. At one point, Rakuten had presence in nearly 30 countries, but had withdrawn from most of them by 2016.

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