Illustration by Federico Manasse
Before the summer of 2002, Asia was largely forgotten by the footballing world. A general awareness existed among top-level clubs that the continent offered large swathes of untapped fans and marketing opportunities, but not many were aware of the playing talent.
That year’s World Cup, co-hosted by semi-finalists South Korea and Japan, changed all that and shifted the perception of Asia as a footballing continent. South Korea’s giant-killing run to the last four is one of the competitions most famed, but the performance of the Japanese was also hugely impressive; seven points saw them top their group before a narrow exit to Turkey in the last-16, with the nation pinning its hopes on by star player Hidetoshi Nakata.
Turning professional aged 18, Nakata spent four years at J-League side Bellmare Hiratsuka, helping them to victory in the 1996 Asian Cup Winners’ Cup before he scooped the Asian Football Confederation Player of the Year award the following season.
At national level, too, the playmaker’s star shone brightly – he netted five times in Japan’s run to the 1998 World Cup, setting up all three goals in the crucial playoff fixture with Iran. That tournament came too soon for an inexperienced Japanese squad – comprised entirely of J-League players – although Nakata’s individual performances were enough to convince several European clubs to make concrete offers.
Then came the star’s career-defining move to Italian side Perugia – scoring 10 goals in his debut season in what was contemporarily widely regarded as the strongest league in world football. Forging a global reputation as a quick, creative, skilful and hard-working midfielder with a keen eye for goal, the 22-year-old was shortlisted for the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or awards.
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The Japanese maestro had swiftly built a mass following not just in Asia but around the world – star performances alongside good looks, charisma and an infectious personality. This was an era when marketing, profiteering and branding were more important than ever, and in football circles, Nakata ranked only behind David Beckham. His PR side created a personal website, where he exclusively gave interviews rather than to traditional media outlets. Links to more glamorous clubs predictably followed and after 18 months in Italy, he joined Roma for a staggering €21.5 million.
Eighteen months later, the Japanese star wrote himself into Giallorossi folklore with a sensational cameo appearance against Juventus. With Roma trailing 2-0 in Turin, Nakata replaced club icon Francesco Totti and instantly scored an incredible 30-yard effort, before later having a powerful shot parried by Edwin van der Sar into Vincenzo Montella’s path to equalise. That draw maintained Roma’s six-point lead atop Serie A and secured only their third ever league title.
With a year to his nation co-hosting the World Cup, the landscape was set for Nakata to take centre stage, but this was not his role at Roma, where he failed to cement a place in a star-studded squad. A €28 million move to rivals Parma followed and the success kept coming for the playmaker; following up on becoming the first Japanese player to win a major European league with a Coppa Italia triumph with Gli Emiliani, a personal league and cup double.
The stage was set for Nakata to reach the summit of his career with a home World Cup tournament. His influence and inspiration was evident, he was now one of four European-based players in the Japanese squad to start a trend which has continued ever since. With 15 minutes remaining against Tunisia in the final group game, the 25-year-old popped up with the vital goal to confirm Japan would top their group.
By their mid-20s footballers are said to have their best years ahead of them, although Nakata was a mainstay in Parma’s side for only one season more before his influence began to wane. He spent loan stints at Bologna and Bolton with mixed success, alongside spending a season at Fiorentina.
It was fitting that Nakata’s last appearance before retirement was with Japan at the 2006 World Cup, although aged just 29, many fans may have felt somewhat short-changed by his sudden fall from grace. Breaking down in tears following Japan’s elimination, it felt like the player had his share of regrets too; but his memories, and his legacy for Japanese football, will never be forgotten