Vissel Kobe's Gotoku Sakai has revealed how Andres Iniesta has stepped up as club captain during the coronavirus pandemic, with the Spaniard keeping spirits high during the stoppage in the J1 League season.
Football in Japan restarted in early July, with Sakai's side securing their first win of the season away at Sagan Tosu last Wednesday.
And ahead of leading his team back to the pitch, Iniesta had made sure a dialogue remained open between himself and his team-mates to help with mental well-being during the public health crisis.
“Off the pitch, he really showed his leadership qualities in the time when we were not able to play football,” Sakai told Goal. “He was trying to keep the group together as much as he could despite being a foreign player and having difficulties with the language.
“Being a former captain myself, I know how difficult that can be, to speak to a group and keep everybody together. But he really made an effort to do that, so I really respect him for that.
“In terms of on the pitch, he plays so many incredible passes. Last year, in the semi-final of the Emperor's Cup, he scored a very important goal for us. Every single day I get to play or train with him is something that I treasure.
“Just training with Andres makes you realise how much there is still to learn. Whether it's the timing of a pass or just the way he sees things, you realise there is still room for growth.
“He isn't a big talker, but he's someone who leads by example through his play. He's a big figure who carries a lot of responsibility. What he brings to this club is that he has the ability to deliver in the important moments – that's something invaluable for us.”
Like Iniesta, Sakai is perhaps better known for his career in Europe, where he played in the Bundesliga for eight years at Stuttgart and Hamburg. The Japan international left his home country at 21 but opted to return to the J League amid troubles at the latter side.
While looking for clubs, he admits the former Barcelona star's presence helped him make his choice.
“With regards to my decision to leave Europe, I would break it down into two parts. The first would be my family, they are here in Japan and I wanted to be closer to them again,” Sakai said.
“Secondly, my time in Hamburg became difficult. The team was relegated to the second division and my own performances were under scrutiny – I wasn't playing to the best of my ability.
“It became a very inhospitable environment. Vissel Kobe were very eager to sign me, they were determined and they showed me that. I saw that they had players like Iniesta and Hotaru Yamaguchi, who is a really good friend and a quality player.
“The project excited me, you could see the ambition and potential for growth and the ability to challenge for titles, so that was a motivating factor.”
It wasn't all doom and gloom for Sakai in the Bundesliga, however, with the full-back having the exciting challenge of having to mark Bayern Munich legends Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.
“Overall, Bayern Munich were the strongest,” he said. “In my position, two players stood out and they were Robben and Ribery. They were incredibly tough match-ups.
“To face Robben, you just have to watch out for him cutting in on his left. He always wants to cut in so you have to keep him on his right and make him run straight and not go inside.
“Ribery could do anything, so the most important thing was to get as close to him as possible when he got the ball and not let him get by you. When he gets up to speed, that's when he is most dangerous.”