The short career of Japan’s prodigal son, who promised so much more

Elliot Gomm

Once lauded as Asia’s answer to David Beckham, Hidetoshi Nakata attracted attention in equal parts for his footballing prowess and his off-the-field antics. But did we see the best of the Japanese midfielder, or did it pass us by?

During his short ten-year career, Hidetoshi Nakata won three major honours, including a Serie A title, was nominated for the Ballon d’Or three times and the FIFA World Player of the Year four times and in 2004 was named in Pelé’s FIFA 100 (a list of the top living footballers of all-time). So why did he retire from football at the age of 29, when most players are reaching their prime years?

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Well, it turns out the slinky midfielder had already achieved great things in a competition hardly known for its competitive football, years before any European football fanatic even thought about the Japanese wizard. The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Set the scene

21 July 1996 at Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium, a 19-year-old boy from Kofu, Japan, is taking to the field in his countries first game at this summer’s Olympics. But it won’t be easy.

Across the halfway line is a team of superstars – present and future, hailed as the next masters of the game. Kitted in the ever-familiar yellow jersey of Brazil are Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo, Juninho, Ronaldo, Savio and the eventual top scorer at the tournament, Bebeto.

A team of young amateurs and unknown local talent from far flung islands in East Asia will surely be no match for the South American superstars. But, what happened over the next 90 minutes of football would have shocked the footballing world, if only it was watching.

Nakata and his teammates masterminded one of the greatest snatch-and-grabs in footballing history, beating the eventual bronze medal winning team 1-0 with a 72nd minute goal from Teruyoshi Ito.

The young boy from the other side of the planet had already experienced football beyond his wildest dreams, beyond the dreams of his eight-year-old self, sat at home watching his favourite soccer cartoon – Captain Tsubasa – on the television. And yet, the footballing world hardly noticed.

Second First Impressions

Having impressed for J-League side Bellmare Hiratsuka and having scored five goals for his national side in qualifying for their first ever World Cup in 1998, Nakata had earned himself a chance to show himself on the world stage, again.

However, despite not winning a single game and Nakata failing to score in Japan’s three group games at France ‘98, his name was being quietly mentioned in the boardrooms of many high-profile clubs around Europe, including at Manchester United.

A successful career in Italy followed starting at Perugia and ending at Fiorentina, winning a Serie A title with Roma and the Coppa Italia with Parma, in between.

Nakata helped Roma win the league title in 2001, scoring a memorable goal past Juventus goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar in a 2-2 draw at the Stadio Delle Alpi, maintaining his sides six-point gap at the top of the table. But arguably his biggest achievement of his career had already passed him by at the age of 19 in an American football stadium more accustomed to oval balls, punting and touchdowns than its European older cousin.

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Big Money, Big Fame, Big Disappointment

Nakata was loved by Japanese fans and European fans, alike, for his on-field ability to dribble through inconceivably tight gaps in the oppositions defence and his many number of perfectly sculpted hairstyles.

In the build-up to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea, Nakata starred in Nike’s ‘Secret Tournament’ advertisement, alongside the likes of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Luis Figo, Thierry Henry and Roberto Carlos. As if we needed any reminding as to exactly how great this ad campaign was, let’s have another look (just for nostalgia purposes):

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It may be the case that his catwalk show appearances and being continuously followed by a posse of Japanese paparazzi got too much for the midfield maestro as – following a short spell in the Premier League with Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers – Nakata retired at the age of 29.

Nakata had reportedly made his mind up on retiring following his country’s exit from the 2006 World Cup in Germany, having gained just a single point. The greatest Japanese player had called it quits and his last game for his country would be a 4-1 loss (and a footballing masterclass) by eventual quarter-finalists Brazil.

Nakata had rather satisfyingly – but also very disappointingly – come full circle in his career. He felt the true highs that the game can provide when he was part of a Japanese national team that could triumph over football’s greatest, but clearly things hadn’t progressed for him (or his country) since that fateful day in July 1996. Hidetoshi Nakata’s – and Japan’s – greatest footballing moment happened without anyone really noticing.

Having played against Andriy Shevchenko on several ocassions, does Nakata make the striker’s greatest all-time XI?

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