Hidetoshi Nakata: The Last Samurai

Hidetoshi Nakata was born in Japan in 1977 and is widely considered the greatest Japanese player of all time; however, this was very nearly not the case as he had to choose between playing baseball and football and it was only due to his great admiration for a Japanese cartoon called ‘Captain Tsubasa’, Nakata chose football.

Even from an early age, Nakata viewed the beautiful game differently. To him, football was quite literally an art form, the striking lines of manga illustration.

Nakata first came to prominence in the nineties with Bellmare Hiratsuka as a technically-gifted midfielder with an eye for goal. Japanese football was still in its infancy, the J League, its first professional domestic competition, was only formed in 1992. Where Gioiellino (Little Jewel) as he was to be known, sparkled brightest, however, was at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Japan had managed to qualify for the quadrennial tournament and despite losing all three of their group stage matches, Nakata with his copper-bronze hair, impressed with his sublime touch. He noted that even though the game was played in France that it felt like a home game as ‘more than half’ of the crowd were Japanese supporters.

Scouts from across Europe were in abundance and after offers from England ‘amongst others’, he wanted to play in Italy and eventually chose Perugia where he became only the second Japanese player, after Kazuyoshi Miura, to play in Italy, with Miura spending a season on loan at Genoa three years previous.

Within months of his arrival in Italy, it became clear that Nakata represented a dual investment as 5,000 of Nakata’s compatriots made the trip to see his Serie A debut and orders for ‘Nakata 7’ shirts were rocketing.

With an eye for a crucial goal and a penchant for the dramatic, Nakata would quickly capture the hearts of the fans.

Having spent two seasons with Perugia in which he helped them consolidate in mid-table, scoring 14 goals in the process, he would inevitably drawing envious glances from some of the biggest teams in Italy. In the end, it was Roma who snapped him up for a substantial £20million.

Nakata struggled to nail down a starting spot with the Giallorossi, although he did silence the doubters at least once with a momentous strike against Juventus. In his second season with the team struggling Nakata came on for Francesco Totti with the side trailing 2-0 to Juve at the Stadio delle Alpi. Soon after he would score arguably one of the goals of the season. He forced a change of possession in the heart of the midfield before lofting a powerful shot past Edwin van der Sar from 25 yards out and leaving the net bulging behind the Dutchman. Then at the death, Nakata rifles a right-footed shot across the keeper from outside the box which is parried to an oncoming Montella to dramatically level the game. This was the shot in the arm Roma needed as they would go unbeaten for the rest of the season, winning their first Scudetto for 18 years.

Parma had noticed that such a talent wasn’t being realized in Rome so paid around £25 million for his services at the end of the 2000/01 campaign – a record fee for an Asian player which would not be broken until Son Heung-Min’s £27 million move from Bayer Leverkusen to Tottenham in 2015. Parma’s young president, Stefano Tanzi, made a point of announcing that the transfer was a mark of the player’s reputation that he stressed his club had bought Nakata for “technical footballing” merits and not as a marketing operation. Although on the day his signing was announced an estimated four million people tried to access his homepage.

Unfortunately, Nakata would suffer nagging injuries throughout his two and a half seasons with Parma. Nevertheless, he had already gained an air of myth and legend.

He was selected for the national team once again as Japan co-hosted the World Cup in 2002. The tournament ended in disappointment for Nakata as Japan were outdone by their co-hosts South Korea.

The player then saw himself jump between Bologna, Fiorentina and eventually to England to play for Bolton Wanderers on loan. The myth and legend only grew stronger when he announced his retirement at the age of 29, saying afterwards: “I always felt that a team was like a big family, but it stopped being like that.”

He ended his playing days an idol in Japan.

Hidetoshi Nakata, the ‘Japanese David Beckham’ had built the career he always dreamed of. By the time he was 29 years old, he had notched up three FIFA World Cup appearances, two Olympic Games, and major contracts with clubs in Italy and England. He had been named Asian Footballer of the Year more than once and nominated for the Ballon d’Or three times. He even received one of Italy’s highest orders, the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity, honouring his near decade-long career there.

With his playing days over, Nakata went in search of a second act.

He would spend seven years visiting every prefecture in Japan to ‘reacquaint himself’ with his home country after spending much of his career abroad. He met with craftsmen determined to preserve decade-old Japanese traditions in making sake. He describes this as his ‘real passion’ but he will be remembered by many for his first passion where he showcased obscene skill and sublime goals for some of the biggest clubs in Europe.

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Johnny McLelland

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