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  • The billionaire businessman is also the founder and CEO of Rakuten, Barcelona

    The billionaire businessman is also the founder and CEO of Rakuten, Barcelona's main sponsor, and was heavily involved in the deal that brought Iniesta to Japan. | Photo: Reuters

Published 9 January 2019

Madrid's leftist mayor Manuela Carmena ended the tradition in the Spanish capital in 2016 and the city now employs a black man to play the role in its Epiphany parade, which is broadcast live across the country.

Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta has apologized under pressure after posting a photo on social media with two people in blackface as part of controversial Epiphany celebrations.

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The 34-year-old superstar who currently plays at Japan's Vissel Kobe had no intention "to upset anyone by displaying that photo," according to a statement by his agency sent to AFP on Wednesday. "He would like to apologize to those people who may have felt offended," the statement said.

Iniesta's picture on Twitter and Instagram posted on Sunday showed his family and a group of people in blackface costumes, taking part in the Three Kings Day, a Christian festive tradition in Spain that is continuing despite many criticisms around possible racism.

The January 6 holiday commemorates the visit of magi Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar to the newborn baby Jesus.

Large parades and other festivities are held across Spain featuring men dressed up as kings, with the role of Balthazar often played by a white man — often a city councilor — in black makeup.

Iniesta, who lifted 32 major trophies and made 674 appearances for Catalan giants Barca, joined Vissel Kobe in May, calling his J-League move an "important career challenge."

The Spanish icon's decision to choose Vissel arguably represents Japanese football's biggest transfer coup, with many top players now moving to cash-rich Chinese clubs in the twilight of their careers.

It also came as a timely boost to the J-League, which used to attract luminaries such as Brazilian great Zico and former England star Gary Lineker when it began in 1993, but has struggled to attract marquee players in recent years.

Iniesta — who famously scored Spain's winning goal against the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final — had been top of the wishlist of Vissel owner Hiroshi Mikitani.

In December 2017 Atletico Madrid's French striker Antoine Griezmann apologized after receiving criticism on social media for posting a picture of himself on his official Twitter account dressed as a Harlem Globetrotter, covered in black paint and wearing a wig.

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