He burst on to the world stage in the summer of 1998 as a skinny 21-year-old representing Japan in their historic first World Cup. His distinctive bright orange locks were not the only thing that made Hidetoshi Nakata stand out. This kid clearly had some talent.
He came into the tournament in France having been crowned the Asian footballer of the year and you could see why. Every time Nakata got the ball you were on the edge of your seat, knowing he could make something happen out of nothing. During Japan’s opening game of the tournament, he looked at ease against Argentina’s established stars such as captain Diego Simeone, and Inter Milan’s Javier Zanetti.
Nakata may not have been well known in Europe at the time of France 98’ but back home in Japan he was a poster boy, the David Beckham of Asian football. He had the looks, the sponsorship deals and plenty of suitors. Prior to France 98’, Nakata not only scooped the aforementioned Asian footballer of the year but he also made a huge contribution to Japan’s qualification for the World Cup, scoring five goals and creating many more. At the time of the World Cup, Nakata was plying his trade at J League side, Bellmare Hiratsuka, the club where he started his career as an 18-year-old back in 1995.
After his glittering performances for Japan, it seemed just a matter of time before some of Europe’s big boys started sniffing around the rising star. However some eyebrows were raised when Nakata ended up in the Umbria region of Italy, signing for Ilario Castagner’s Perugia for a fee of around $4million. Sure it wasn’t the biggest club in the world but the Japanese midfielder was now playing in one of the world’s most prestigious leagues. During the turn of the 21st century, Serie A was a glamorous proposition; packed full of stars testing themselves against the best Europe had to offer.
Nakata immediately impressed, silencing his many critics who thought Perugia had signed a World Cup one hit wonder. A particular highlight of his debut season was his performance against defending champions Juventus. The playmaker wreaked havoc on the Bianconeri defence, scoring two goals in a narrow 4-3 loss. But the Japanese pin up boy also proved to be a prudent investment off the field. Crowds grew at Perugia games, largely thanks to the average attendance of 3,000 Japanese Nakata enthusiasts at each game. The clubs owners, the Gaucci family, were further rewarded by the order of 70, 000 “Nakata No7” Perugia shirts, which happened to be produced by the Gaucci-owned Galex sportswear firm.
Nakata spent one and a half very impressive years in Umbria scoring 10 times in his first season for Perugia. This sort of form didn’t go unnoticed and it would prompt, Fabio Capello, to splash 42 Billion Italian lire (€21.691 million) to bring Nakata to AS Roma in the January transfer window of 2000.
Nakata’s greatest moment in a Roma shirt came towards the end of the 2000/01 season as the Lupi travelled to Turin to take on title rivals Juventus. Trailing 2-0, Nakata came on to replace Mr Roma himself, Francesco Totti. Nakata’s presence was immediately felt as he grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and turned it on its head. Firstly he produced an outrageous long range shot which had the imposing Edwin Van Der Sar comfortably beaten to bring the Giallorossi back into the game at 2-1. With only 10 minutes remaining he tried his luck from range once again. This time Van Der Sar was just about equal to Nakata’s strike but the big Dutchman could only parry the ball to the feet of Vincenzo Montella who made it 2-2.
This point ensured Roma maintained a six point gap at the top and they would go on to win their third Scudetto. Nakata enjoyed a successful yet transient time in Rome and in the summer of 2001 he was on the move again. Despite alleged interest from Arsenal, Nakata would stay in Italy, this time heading north to Parma.
Parma had cash to spend having sold goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and defender Lilian Thuram to Juventus for megabucks. Coach Renzo Ulivieri was keen to recruit reinforcements for the clubs upcoming Champions League campaign and he invested 55 billion lire (€28.4 million) on the Japanese International. During this time, the 24-year-old was at the height of his powers, the combination of midfield vision, ball-winning tenacity and goal-scoring nous making him a class act.
Playing in the Champions League was a major factor in Nakata moving to Parma, as despite having the same opportunity at Roma, he would have undoubtedly been forced to play second fiddle to Francesco Totti. The play-maker would be an instant hit at the Stadio Ennio Tardini, just as he had been on his arrival in Italy. In his first season with the Emilia Romagna outfit, Nakata helped his side to an impressive Coppa Italia triumph.
The influential midfielders defining moment came during the first leg of the Coppa Italia final against Juventus. With just seconds remaining and Parma trailing 2-0, Nakata produced a scissor kick volley from a corner to give theCrociati a crucial away goal. The Gialloblu went onto to lift the trophy after completing their comeback with a 1-0 win against Juve at the Stadio Tardini. This was probably the highlight of Nakata’s Parma career.
Financial demise saw Parma go from champions league contenders to relegations battlers and the cash strapped club were forced to let their prized assets go. As a consequence, Nakata joined Parma’s neighbours and rivals, Bologna, on loan for the remainder of the 2003/04 season. The following year, he completed a move to Fiorentina where he would spend his last season in Serie A. His Italian fairy tale was over.
The pioneering Japanese footballer would spend the 2005/2006 season in the English Premier League with Bolton Wonderers before retiring from the game after the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Despite only being aged 29, Nakata left the game to which he had dedicated so much time simply because he no longer enjoyed playing. The decision encapsulated the sincerity Nakata had displayed throughout his career.
Nakata remains the greatest Asian footballer to grace Italian football and he perhaps remains Asia’s most talented export. For that reason, Italian football can be thankful for witnessing a great at the peak of his game. Between the years of 1998 and 2005 he lit up many a Stadio on a Sunday afternoon and gave fans across the peninsula some wonderful memories.