Former Spain and Barcelona great Andres Iniesta thanked his Japanese fans for their "love and respect" after kicking off his farewell celebrations for J-League side Vissel Kobe at Tokyo's National Stadium on Tuesday.
The 39-year-old icon, who will play his last J1 match for Kobe against Consadole Sapporo on July 1, made his stadium swansong in a 2-0 exhibition loss to a Barcelona side managed by another of the Catalan club's former stalwarts, his longtime teammate Xavi.
The match preluded the end of a five-year J-League stint during which Iniesta raised Vissel's profile to unprecedented heights and brought the club their first major silverware, the Emperor's Cup, at the same stadium on New Year's Day in 2020.
The recently crowned Spanish champions raced ahead in the first half through goals from Ivorian attacker Franck Kessie and center-back Eric Garcia, while the Japanese side made sure the crowd saw an entertaining contest with repeated raids on the opposing goal.
But the standing ovation upon Iniesta's 80th-minute exit from the rain-soaked pitch made it clear the result was secondary to paying tribute to the biggest overseas name to grace the J-League in recent years.
"It's been a really happy day, thanks to all of the fans who gathered here," Iniesta said. "I'm really happy that we were able to have the match in this special stadium where we raised the Emperor's Cup."
The 2010 World Cup winner, regarded as one of the most talented players of his generation, said he was grateful for being warmly embraced by people in Japan since the moment he arrived.
"Thank you for always welcoming me and my family with love and respect," he said. "Japan feels like home to me."
After the match, Iniesta was presented with a Barcelona jersey signed by current members of the club, whe.re he won nine Spanish league titles and four Champions League crowns.
Iniesta announced his departure from Kobe late last month after seeing his playing time dwindle. The veteran has expressed a desire to continue playing but has so far stayed quiet regarding his next move.
The Barcelona match had been billed as Iniesta's last for Kobe before the club revealed he would make his final farewell on their home turf at Noevir Stadium in three weeks' time.