Is Yuto Nagatomo Asia’s most under-rated player?

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden takes a look at the career of Japanese left-back Yuto Nagatomo.

Until recently, Son Heung-min was labelled as the most under-rated player in the English Premier League. The South Korean’s performances for Tottenham Hotspur have now buried that for good. Son’s reputation in Asia has always been high but there is another export to Europe that deserves more recognition.

There have been few Asian players that have spent any serious time in Italy. Hidetoshi Nakata obviously comes to mind with the Japanese midfield maestro enjoying a total of seven years on the peninsula from 1998 to 2005. He won plenty of admirers and famously helped Roma to the 2000 league title before making a big-money move to Parma in the summer of 2001.

Ahn Jung-hwan went at a similar time but the South Korean did not have the same success with Perugia and famously left the club in 2002 after scoring the World Cup goal that dumped Italy out of the competition. There was Iranian defender Rahman Rezaei at Perugia, Messina and Livorno in the last decade who earned respect for his steady performances over seven years. Shunsuke Nakamura did pretty well for a while before his move to Celtic, but there is little to write back home east about.

There is another however, a player who spent seven years at one of the biggest clubs in the country and one of the biggest in the world. Yuto Nagatomo was Inter Milan’s left back from 2011 to 2018. The Japanese defender, who was more interested in playing the drum at school than the beautiful game, has not earned the footballing headlines that he has deserved. Even his January departure to Galatasaray on loan, another move to another big club, was not widely-reported.

While Nagatomo played around 200 games for Inter, it was not a smooth ride. Fans often got on his back and he never really won the hearts of the blue and black half of the city. Sometimes this happens. Partly this is because he did make mistakes – and as Spurs saw against Juventus if you make mistakes against good Italian teams then you get punished – partly because he is a defender and partly because his time at the club has coincided with a relatively lean period in Inter’s history. The time just before he arrived was a golden era. There were five successive league titles, a run that ended in 2010. Then there was that Champions League success in 2010. Since then, since the arrival of Nagatomo, there hasn’t been much to cheer about.

This is reinforced by a look at the coaching situation. Since that European win, there have been ten coaching changes. This is obviously not a healthy sign. What is interesting is that the former FC Tokyo man has outlived them all, and some of them have been big name managers as you would expect from a club of Inter’s stature. He was selected by all too and that suggests that there were plenty of qualities there to attract a variety of tacticians.

Perhaps it is because the now 31-year-old gave everything in every game. Even when he lost his place, he kept his head down, worked hard and eventually came back into the starting line-up. Fast, fit and technically adept, he had all the qualities needed and was, often unfairly, the brunt of criticism from the fans.

The basic fact can’t be disputed: you don’t play seven years at one of the biggest clubs in the world if you are not a good player. It is perhaps only now that he has left that fans in Milan are realising just how good he was.

It is the same in Asia. It is often underestimated how difficult and demanding it is to play at a top-level European club and then regularly make the long trip east to play for the national team. The journey is one of the hardest ones around in terms of jetlag and it used to take a lot out of Park Ji-sung at Manchester United. At the same time he was establishing himself for Inter, the full-back was playing often for Japan and earning over a century of international caps and playing very well, helping the Samurai Blue to the 2011 Asian Cup and through all kinds of qualification campaigns. He is still representing his country.

His time in Europe is not over but it is perhaps symbolic he is now in Istanbul, the city that straddles Europe and Asia. Maybe he will soon be saying ‘sayonara’ to Italy and the west and saying ‘buongiorno’ to Japan and Asia. When he does return, he deserves to be seen as what he undoubtedly is: one of the most successful Asian players ever in Europe.