Spanish soccer star Iniesta to leave Japanese club Vissel Kobe in July

Spanish soccer star Andres Iniesta said on Thursday he will leave the J.League club Vissel Kobe this summer.

The 39-year-old midfielder was joined by teammates and family as he held a news conference at a hotel in the city of Kobe, western Japan.

Iniesta said he will leave the league's top division side after a home match on July 1, midway through his contract that runs through the 2023 season, which ends in December.

In explaining his decision, Iniesta said he felt that the head coach's priorities changed. He said he accepts the reality but also has a passion to play soccer, and that led him to decide that leaving the club was the best choice.

Iniesta was tearful as he reflected on his five years with the Kobe club.

He said he feels joy and pride, and that he was able to mature as a person and as a player. He said there were some difficult periods, but the experience made his teammates and the team stronger.

Iniesta said the decision to leave the club was one of the most difficult he's had to make in his pro career.

Iniesta played for the Spanish national team at four World Cup tournaments, helping it clinch the title in South Africa in 2010.

Iniesta joined Kobe from Spanish powerhouse Barcelona in 2018. He helped Kobe win the Emperor's Cup, the club's first-ever trophy, on New Year's Day in 2020.
Later that year, the club reached the final four of the AFC Champions League. In 2021, Kobe achieved its best-ever top-division finish of third.

However, 2022 saw a downturn and, after several managerial changes, Kobe turned to tactics that did not rely on Iniesta. He's had much less time on the pitch this season, while the team currently leads the top division's standings.