This feature first appeared in the March 2021 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now and get five issues for £5!
A young Hidetoshi Nakata didn’t really watch much football. He did, though, watch Captain Tsubasa: the 1980s manga series beloved by many would-be footballers, from megafan Fernando Torres to Alessandro Del Piero and Andres Iniesta. It lured Nakata into his first kickabout. Asia will remain ever grateful.
Come the new millennium, Nakata was a superstar. At a time when a footballer with a brand wasn’t the norm but the exception (or Becks-eption?), the promising Japanese midfielder was the world’s most marketable player. Nakata was everywhere, posing on posters, selling saké, inspiring hair trends and promoting Coca-Cola, MasterCard, Toyota and Nike. “I don’t appreciate it,” he admitted of his new role as global billboard, “but it’s true.” Switched-on and handsome, Nakata became a fashion model and even editor-at-large of hipster men’s lifestyle magazine Monocle.
He was also a tremendously skilful player – three Ballons d’Or nominations testified to that. Gioiellino (‘the Little Jewel’) produced sparkling moments on the pitch, conjuring chances from nowhere, and as much as he self-identified as a playmaker, he combined vision and intelligence with graft. The No.8 shirt at Roma fitted him neatly, despite his 5ft 9in, 11st wet-through frame.
The world discovered Nakata at France 98 – but Japan needed to get there first. World Cup qualification was a necessity after their last-gasp failure to reach USA 94, and ahead of their much-anticipated co-hosting in 2002. Nakata delivered a Tsubasa-like performance in the Samurai Blue’s 1997 play-off against Iran, setting up Japan’s opener (a slide-rule through ball), equaliser (an inch-perfect inswinging cross) and Golden Goal winner (a mazy dribble and rebound-inducing shot). Almost single-handedly, he’d given his nation their first World Cup. He was 20.
Stellar displays in France earned Nakata a European move. Perugia made him only the second Asian player in Serie A’s history, following compatriot Kazuyoshi ‘King Kazu’ Miura (AKA the guy still playing aged 53) at Genoa in 1994.
Some 5,000 Japanese fans flew to Italy for Nakata’s Perugia debut; many returned for future matches. Ten Serie A goals in his first campaign was a remarkable return in a side fighting relegation, and Fabio Capello’s Roma stumped up £12 million in January 2000.
Nakata is remembered fondly in Italy’s capital – well, half of it – for his role in Roma’s 2000-01 title triumph, the last Scudetto to escape the clutches of Juventus, AC Milan or Inter . He’d fallen victim to the league’s restrictions on non-Europeans – only three of Nakata, Gabriel Batistuta, Walter Samuel, Cafu, Abel Balbo, Gianni Guigou and Marcos Assuncao were permitted in one matchday squad – but, a week after his volleyed goal against Udinese, and a few days before the Giallorossi’s title showdown with Juve, Italy’s FA ditched the rule.
Within six minutes, second-placed Juve led 2-0 through Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane. Replacing Francesco Totti with Nakata raised several eyebrows (Carlo Ancelotti was sat in the opposition dugout, after all) but Roma’s Japanese import stole the ball in midfield, surged goalwards and launched a curling Exocet into the top corner. He wasn’t done. In stoppage time, with the minutes drifting away alongside Roma’s table-topping lead, Nakata unleashed another fierce long-range drive. Edwin van der Sar could only parry it; Vincenzo Montella pounced.
Nakata had maintained Roma’s six-point advantage over Juventus – valuable, because they would end up clinching the league on its final day. In the interim, Nakata nipped back home, steered Japan to a symbolically significant Confederations Cup final thanks to several excellent displays and a semi-final winner against Australia, then left before the co-hosts’ showdown with France in order to see Roma over the line.
Nakata tormented Juventus the following season as well, his athletic volley kicking off Parma’s comeback to win the two-legged 2002 Coppa Italia Final. He’d cost I Crociati £18.6m – the highest fee for an Asian player until Son Heung-min joined Spurs in 2015.
Citing ennui, Nakata retired young, aged 29 – just 28 when he made his decision while on loan at Bolton (which will do that to you). Before falling out of love with the game, he made millions fall in love with it: an impact worthy of Captain Tsubasa himself.
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