Vissel Kobe are in the news after signing Andres Iniesta, and the Japanese club was once home to a former Chelsea cult hero.
Emerson Thome became the first Brazilian to pull on the blue shirt when he joined us from Sheffield Wednesday, shortly before Christmas in 1999.
The centre-half, who was known as ‘The Wall’ – fittingly, we also had Marcel ‘The Rock’ Desailly at the club then – was pitched in for his debut on Boxing Day against Southampton, which just so happened to be as part of the first-ever all-foreign starting XI in English football history.
‘I think, to be honest, most of the Premier League clubs at that time were hoping that we would lose the game,’ said Thome in an old interview with the Chelsea magazine. ‘But luckily for us – and for myself because, like with anything, you want the first impression to be good – we won 2-1 and I played quite well.’
He proved to be a big hit with the supporters in west London, excelling in his only Champions League appearance as we famously beat Barcelona at Stamford Bridge.
‘The supporters and a few people at the club had lots of nice things to say about me after the match. I know expectations probably weren't that high about me – I'd only played a few Premier League games for Chelsea, but I thought I’d shown myself as a solid defender – so it was good to do it in the Champions League, which was a completely different matter,’ he recalled.
‘Unfortunately I didn’t play in the second leg. It’s funny, on the way to the tunnel at the Camp Nou I got stopped by Jose Mourinho [then Barca assistant] and he asked me if I was going to be playing, and then Rivaldo and Luis Figo said the same thing.
‘They said they didn't want me to play because I did so well in the first game! I was really glad to hear that, but unfortunately I didn't play.’
Thome’s spell with the Blues proved to be short-lived, though, and he played in only 22 games before joining Sunderland.
When his time in England eventually ended in 2006, the defender headed for the Far East, joining Vissel Kobe for the final two seasons of his playing career.
‘The fans out there were smashing,’ he said. 'The relationship was great and they were so caring. I remember when I broke my metatarsal at the beginning of my second season and I was out for three months – all of the fans were saying, “Emmo, when are you coming back? We need you, we love you!” I really felt a part of the family, a good family.
‘I spent two years with Vissel Kobe and I really appreciated my time there. I knew I was coming to the end of my career and it was a chance to take one last challenge – going to a place so far away to play football. It was full of good people and the quality wasn't that bad. I know I wasn't as young at that stage or as quick as I used to be, but that's what made it such a good challenge.’
As much as he loved his time with Iniesta’s new club, for Thome nothing will compare with his time in England and particularly with Chelsea.
‘Oh, I loved my time at Chelsea, I have so many great memories and I will always tell people it was one of the highlights of my career,’ he said. ‘It’s not the Chelsea like you see today, but what a brilliant experience it was.
‘I spent eight and a bit years in England and had a great time there, the best of my career. I just regret two things – I didn't have a chance to come earlier or the chance to stay a bit longer! But that is life.’