Asian World Cup Icons: The trailblazer Hidetoshi Nakata

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

For our final Asian World Cup icon, “Same Same But Different: Your Asian Football Show” looks back at Hidetoshi Nakata, the Japanese trailblazer who paved the way for many to follow.

They may be a regular feature now but, 20 years ago, Japan were preparing to make their debut at the FIFA World Cup.

As it is, there was plenty of interest and intrigue over the new competitors from Asia yet – just for good measure – a certain 21-year-old decided to dye his hair a shocking shade of blonde just to get a bit more attention.

It probably worked in his favour but, to be fair, ability alone would have done the job for Hidetoshi Nakata.

Blessed with excellent technique, composure and the vision of a top-level playmaker, it did not take the Kofu native long to rise to prominence after making his debut at 18 with Bellmare Hiratsuka (now Shonan Bellmare).

Three years later, he found himself starting for the Samurai Blue in their maiden World Cup appearance and through his ability – and maybe the blonde hair helped a little – European scouts did indeed take notice.

Perugia eventually earned the right to his services as they forked out a US$4million transfer fee, making Nakata the second Japanese to play in Serie A after the legendary Kazuyoshi Miura (who is astonishingly still playing professional football today at the age of 51).

The classy midfielder took Italian football by storm in his first season at Perugia, netting ten goals and, by the start of 2000, earned a big-money move to Roma.

While he largely had to play second fiddle to captain Francesco Totti, Nakata did have his defining moment in helping the Giallorossi win the Serie A title the following season, which remains the last time they have won the Scudetto.

With six games left to play in the campaign, Roma came up against closest challengers Juventus and found themselves trailing 2-0.

With Totti having a rare ineffectual game, Nakata replaced the club’s talisman and turned the game around, pulling one back in the 79th minute with a 25-yard stunner into the top corner, before another long-range effort was parried by Edwin van der Sar into the path of Vincenzo Montella to turn home the equaliser.

Their late fightback preserved a six-point lead at the top of the table, and Roma eventually went on to be crowned champions as they finished two points above Juventus.

That triumph was the highlight of Nakata’s club career even though he did still enjoy a fair bit of success in his time with Parma, Bologna, Fiorentina and even in the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers.

Still, other than the Scudetto with Roma, it was on the international stage where Nakata truly made a name of himself.

Following France 1998, Nakata was an established star by the time the next World Cup came about and it was on home soil for the Japanese.

After opening their campaign with a 2-2 draw against Belgium, the Samurai Blue went on to beat Russia and Tunisia to finish top of Group H and reach the Round of 16, where they were ultimately eliminated by Turkey.

Nonetheless, there was no such joy in 2006 as Japan finished behind Brazil, Australia and Croatia in a tough group and, sadly, that proved to be Nakata’s swansong as he announced his retirement shortly after at the age of only 29.

Nakata keeping Kaka at bay at the 2006 World Cup…

While it may now be 12 years since he hung up his boots, Nakata remains a household name and is regularly mentioned in discussions about Asia’s greatest-ever footballers.

For, it may seem like the norm these days with the likes of Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo all spending much of their careers thriving in Europe’s biggest leagues.

Yet, before all of them, one man led the way for the Samurai Blue and made it all happen – the trailblazer Hidetoshi Nakata.