* Iniesta will head to the World Cup with Spain
* Spaniard to wear his familiar number eight jersey (Adds quotes from news conference, background)
By Chris Gallagher
TOKYO, May 24 (Reuters) - Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta kicked off a new chapter to his career when he signed for Japanese side Vissel Kobe on Thursday, swapping La Liga for the J.League after 16 stellar years at Spanish champions Barcelona.
The 34-year-old former Barca captain, who had spent his entire career at the Nou Camp, was introduced at a news conference in Tokyo by Kobe owner Hiroshi Mikitani and will wear his familiar number eight jersey for the J.League side.
“This is a very special day. This is a very important challenge for me and my career,” Iniesta said, noting that he had a lot of respect for Japanese soccer which had many high-level players.
“Therefore, I would like to contribute to my team and show my style of play. That is why I came to Japan and through my play I hope to make contributions for further development for the club and Japanese soccer.”
Mikitani called Iniesta “the most respected soccer player in the world” and said his signing would not only contribute to the club but also help promote the league through his name recognition.
“I hope the J.League will grow into a league that the whole world wants to watch,” said Mikitani, who is also the chief executive of Barca’s main sponsor Rakuten.
The move will see Iniesta, who bid a tearful farewell when he played his final game for Barcelona on Sunday, link up with former German international Lukas Podolski, who joined the Japanese side last year.
Barcelona and Denmark great Michael Laudrup also played for Kobe for one season between 1996-97.
Iniesta will try to help Kobe, currently sixth in the J1 League after 15 games, win a first ever Japanese championship. The club’s highest ever finish was seventh in 2016.
At Barcelona, he won nine La Liga titles, four Champions League titles and six King’s Cups.
Before he embarks on his Japanese adventure, Iniesta will join up with the Spain team to prepare for the World Cup in Russia, where they will be seeking a second title.
Iniesta scored the only goal in the 2010 final against the Netherlands to give Spain their first World Cup. This year, they kick off their Group B campaign against Portugal in Sochi on June 15. Morocco and Iran are the other teams in the pool. (Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Editing by John O’Brien)