In the summer of 2002, Asian football was thrust into the global spotlight thanks to a highly successful World Cup in Japan and South Korea. The entire planet sat back and revelled in the glory that was the latter’s phenomenal run to the semi-finals.
While the world was left stunned as Guus Hiddink masterminded one of football’s greatest underdog stories, there was only one player grabbing the headlines before, during and after the tournament. The commotion surrounding this star would leave a generation of supporters donning replica number seven shirts, changing the face of Asia forever. Step forward Hidetoshi Nakata.
The football world might not have warmed to the Asian nations until that unforgettable summer of 2002, but Japanese football had been steadily rising for some time. Having been awarded co-host status back in 1996, the Samurai Blue began their meteoric ascent by shocking Brazil at the 1996 Olympics. Unfortunately, the team was still eliminated at the group stage despite winning two of their three games.
Nevertheless, the prospect of Japanese football becoming a serious player was quickly gaining momentum, which was amplified tenfold when the senior team subsequently qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France – their first-ever appearance at the showpiece tournament. A national love affair with the beautiful game had been born and Nakata was emerging as the chief recipient of a continent’s adulation.
Nakata’s involvement in those early successes cannot be overlooked. Not only was he an integral member of that 1996 Olympic squad in America, he was the centrepiece as Takeshi Okada guided the Samurai Blue through a difficult AFC World Cup qualifying process. Despite his tender age, the 20-year-old midfielder amassed 11 appearances en route to France 98, scoring five goals and assisting all three in the crucial 3-2 playoff victory against Iran.
The young Japanese star had already cemented his place as the most promising Asian footballer of a generation; without his contributions in the build-up to his country’s inaugural World Cup appearance, the state of football in Japan may have never reached the level it has today. The national team might have lost all three games in 1998, but the seeds had been planted for the wider nation, a baseball nation, to fall in love with football.
Although the team as a whole failed to impress, Nakata’s individual displays on the big stage were strong enough to garner the attention of various European clubs. Soon after the tournament he made the switch from Bellmar Hiratsuka to Italian side Perugia. His spell in Serie A would redefine Japan’s outlook on football, as well as the world’s attitude towards the merits of the game in Asia.
At the time of his arrival, Nakata was the only Japanese international to ply his trade outside of the J League and the €4m move was naturally met with frenzy from the local media. On the pitch, he would hit the ground running, notching an impressive 10 goals during a successful debut season in Italy. He also lifted a second successive AFC Player of the Year award and was even shortlisted for the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or awards. At the age of 22, the world was quite literally at the feet of Asia’s most famous sporting export.
Nakata was quickly becoming one of the game’s brightest stars. The Perugia maestro had gained a legion of followers worldwide thanks to his creative flair on the pitch and equally infectious personality off it. The Japanese enigma would continue to wow fans at the Stadio Renato Curi for another six months before making the giant leap to title contenders Roma.
A fee of €21.6m would make the midfielder Japan’s most expensive player by a considerable distance. Many would argue that Nakata’s ability warranted that amount of money – even if it didn’t, his commercial value and star appeal ensured a worthwhile deal for Fabio Capello’s side.
The universal fascination with Nakata was already considerable but the move to Italy’s capital would instantly kick his brand into overdrive. In addition to being a talented midfielder, who had now been shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or and World Player of the Year awards twice, the new Roma number eight was a marketing team’s dream.
Nakata’s unique standing as a gifted Japanese footballer provided a real niche to be exploited, whilst his striking good looks, natural charm, and dedicated appreciation of fashion completed a persona that was easy for fans to buy into. Aside from David Beckham, the new Roma sensation was arguably the most recognisable face in world football – and certainly one of the most profitable commodities.
It’s also worth noting that his rise to stardom conveniently coincided with the boom in information delivery. The astronomical growth of household access to the World Wide Web opened up plenty of new avenues for sporting idols and Nakata was one of the first to capitalise on this to its full potential.
At the height of his fame, the decision to refuse interviews proved to be another masterstroke. Instead of using the usual outlets, he would keep fans updated via his personal website. As a result, Nakata.net would attract millions of hits every week as the Japanese public indulged in the phenomena.
The Nakata brand was growing from strength to strength off the pitch, but this was primarily fuelled by his immense success on it. Just 18 months after joining Capello’s revolution in Rome, his place in history was secured as he became the first Japanese player to ever win the Scudetto.
His playing time had been restricted to just 15 appearances but that shouldn’t detract from his role the team, which Francesco Totti has since praised, and his influence in Roma’s late revival against Juventus proved to be one of the most defining moments of the entire campaign. Nakata had lived up to his potential and sent the levels of anticipation for the following summer’s World Cup into the stratosphere.
Nevertheless, a player of his standing craved a more prominent role and so he duly made the switch to Parma for €28m, taking his career transfer fees to over €50m. Nakata would be a key player at the heart of the Gialloblù midfield and the 2001/02 season would end in spectacular fashion as he helped the club lift the Coppa Italia, scoring the crucial goal in Turin as his side won the title on the away goals rule.
In the space of two seasons, Nakata had completed a personal league and cup double. A legacy was already created and, at 25, he was heading into his home World Cup as the poster boy. Japan’s star man was already a national hero, with millions donning his number eight shirt. Indeed, the world waited to see whether Asia’s most recognisable sporting export could drag the Samurai Blue to the round of 16 and beyond.
The bridging four seasons since France 98 had seen Nakata help introduce the world to a new talent pool. Heading into the 2002 tournament, four of Japan’s 23-man squad were playing in Europe and it was abundantly clear that clubs were open to the possibility of tapping into a new and exciting market.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Nakata’s success in Italy had inspired a generation of young Japanese talent. A productive career in Europe no longer seemed beyond the realms of possibility and that, combined with the popularity boom deriving from hosting football’s most prestigious event, has been key to the evolution of the game in Japan and, indeed, the wider Far East region.
On 14 June 2002, Japan’s moment in the spotlight arrived. The whole world tuned in to watch them draw 2-2 with Belgium before registering a memorable 1-0 win over Russia just five days later. However, it was the final group game against Tunisia that saw a nation’s dream come true. Japan were already leading Tunisia in the Nagai Stadium, leaving them on the cusp of qualification to the knockout stages. Then, with 15 minutes remaining, the indomitable Nakata popped up with a telling goal to seal a place in the round of 16. Nakata had reached his pinnacle.
The co-hosts would be eliminated by Turkey in the next stage but a nation had been gripped. Almost a decade after the J League had been launched, delirium had engulfed the public. This was no longer a temporary fixation; football was here to stay and nobody had done more for its increase in popularity than their greatest icon.
Nakata had been the catalyst for Japanese football both on and off the pitch. His achievements in the game, along with his ability to status as a fashion icon, had gained worldwide acknowledgement. Equally so, fans the world over were mesmerised by how much adoration the Japanese public had for their man.
With his prime years seemingly ahead of him, fans salivated at the prospect of what they’d see over the coming seasons. Unfortunately, Nakata’s career had already peaked and it wouldn’t be long before one of the game’s brightest stars would begin to fade. Over the next 18 months, he would continue to perform well in spurts for Parma, let down by inconsistency in his game, before being shipped out on loan to Bologna for six months. A move to Fiorentina would soon follow but the heights of yesteryear would never be matched.
Nevertheless, Nakata’s accomplishments received a massive nod of approval in 2004 as Pelé named him in the FIFA 100 list of greatest living players. He was one of only two Asians to be included.
The 2005 season saw Nakata head to England on loan in a shock move to Bolton Wanderers. Despite failing to shine for nearly three years, a media storm accompanied his every step, with English fans intrigued to see whether the Japanese idol could rediscover his mercurial best. Unfortunately that vision could have scarcely been further from the reality that would unfold.
For a number of reasons, manager Sam Allardyce never saw eye-to-eye with the on-loan star. Nakata was rarely allowed to express his artistry in a rigid Trotters line-up. The Japanese sensation would find the net just once in 21 appearances and it wasn’t hard to see that his future lie away from Bolton. Nobody, however, could’ve guessed that it would lie outside of football altogether.
By the time World Cup 2006 had arrived, Nakata had secretly decided that this would be his last foray in professional football. His disillusionment with the game had become so overpowering that he no longer wanted to be involved a sport he’d adored since childhood. He later cited a number of contributing factors, such as the increasing focus on money rather than success. Ultimately, though, the 29-year-old simply didn’t want to keep playing if he couldn’t influence matches in the same manner that he previously had.
Japan picked up just one point at the 2006 World Cup and the image of Nakata breaking down in Dortmund will, for many, remain one of the tournament’s lasting memories. At the time nobody was the wiser, but those tears signalled a tragically premature end to one of the most fascinating chapters in modern football history.
Seventy-seven international caps, 11 goals, a Coppa Italia and Serie A title tell just a portion of the story. In retrospect, there is a sense of unfulfilled potential surrounding the career of this enigmatic Japanese export, but the hysteria surrounding his every move ensured that following the former midfielder’s progress was one of the most intriguing elements for football consumers around the turn of the century.
Millions of fans, Japanese and otherwise, welcomed the distinguished playmaker into their hearts and his legacy lives on nearly a decade after his retirement.
Nakata’s time at the top may have been brief, but his unforgettable impact paved the way for an influx of stars from the Far East to grace the game. Meanwhile, the national team has now qualified for six consecutive World Cups and current stars Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, Gōtoku Sakai, Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo are just a few names to benefit from the footprint left by the nation’s first real football phenomenon.
There was a time when the name Hidetoshi Nakata was met with euphoria in Japan. In terms of popularity, he was on a pedestal behind perhaps only David Beckham. Despite boasting an array of talents, Nakata probably doesn’t quite join the pantheon of football’s greatest players. Nevertheless, his short spell of eminence means that his name will never be forgotten. Inconsistent on the pitch, yes, but a trailblazer and icon who will take some topping in the hearts and minds of the Japanese people.
By Liam Newman @thatliamnewman