My Obsession With Japanese Legend Hidetoshi Nakata


On June 2006, nine years ago this month, Japan’s first true footballing son walked away from the game.

The twenty-nine year old had just competed in his third World Cup and had managed to play in all of Japan’s group games, lasting the full ninety minutes on each occasion. In the 0-0 draw with Croatia during that tournament Hidetoshi Nakata gave his country everything he had; guile, experience and industrious effort. He was still the main man and deservedly won the man of the match award that day.

But that was the only positive for Japan that year.

The Kofu native decided his time as a soccer player had come to an end, retiring immediately, even though he still had a year left on his contract with Fiorentina and had offers from clubs all over the globe.

In truth, I’ve always been fascinated with the Hidetoshi Nakata story.

The France 98′ World Cup was big for me, I was a teenager who adored everything about the beautiful game.

In 1998, the internet wasn’t as big and certainly didn’t have the knowledge bursting from it’s seams like it does in today’s world. I am pretty sure, I was still waiting for my first mobile phone back then, so you can see that it was a different era in terms of informative and easily accessible technology.

That meant that the World Cup was absolutely massive as it represented a time to view other players from other parts of the planet, that I hadn’t watched before.

We had things like World Soccer magazine, Championship Manager and Eurogoals on Eurosport but that was about it when it came to trying to discover more about teams outside of Europe’s main leagues.

So in 19998 I was introduced to the great skills of Jay-Jay Okocha and Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s bunny-hop. Chile’s Marcelo Salas and Mexico’s Luis Hernandez also impressed me with their goals.


But it was the flame haired Japanese number eight who really piqued my interest.

I had never heard of him, nor had I seen the Japanese national team play before that Coupe du Monde. The Asian side impressed with their fighting spirit and the fine technical skill stood out and made for splendid viewing.

Nakata, then only twenty-one, didn’t look out of place as he battled against an Argentine midfield that contained Matias Almeyda, Juan Sebastian Veron and Diego Simeone.  The youngster showed great composure on the ball and had a keen eye for a pass.

France 98′ won him a move to Serie A, with Perugia paying around £2.6m for his services.

Nakata soon became Asian football’s biggest superstar!

Many gave him the moniker ‘the Japanese David Beckham’. There are quite a few similarities between the pair (Beckham to played in those exact same World Cups).

The midfield maestro would flourish at Perugia and in Serie A.

Perugia’s owner at the time, one Luciano Gaucci, has often been ridiculed in footballing circles for some of his bizarre footballing decisions.

Here are just a few:

  • He effectively sacked Korean forward Ahn Jung-Hwan for scoring the goal that helped eliminate Italy from the 2002 World Cup, stating “I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian football.”
  • Gaucci also told the media that he was looking to sign a female footballer to play for Perugia and had scouts searching Europe for the right talent. When the Italian authorities dismissed this idea, Gaucci would go on and threaten to sign a horse instead! Yes you read that right a horse!
  • In 2003, Perugia would sign Saadi al-Gaddafi. Saadi was the son of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He would make one miserable appearance for the Griffins before failing a drug test.

But for all of Luciano’s madcap schemes, signing Hidetoshi Nakata was his finest masterstroke. It allowed Perugia to get a foothold in the growing Asian market and generate great revenue from that new field. TV interest in Perugia’s games went through the roof in Japan and shirt sales with ‘7 Nakata’ on the back soared (I bought one and still have it!).


As a transfer strategy huge clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, PSV, AC Milan, Everton, Roma, Celtic and Borussia Dortmund have tried to copy it with varying success.

It was Nakata that really showed European clubs that players from Asia were not just technically sound but also ready for the rigours of European football. That has allowed the rest to follow on and prosper!

Nakata went to AS Roma and helped the capital side win the Scudetto in 2001. The Japanese man would often be vying with Giallorossi legend Francesco Totti for a starting place. Nakata discussed their rivalry earlier this year, claiming that he felt he was actually better than “Il Capitano’:

“When I was at Roma, we played in more or less the same position and there was this kind of rivalry.

“We were still young and we didn’t get along well, I think I was better at the time, but I didn’t play as much as Totti.”

Then Hidetoshi left for Parma and helped them to a Coppa Italia title in 2002.

Moves to Bologna, Fiorentina and Bolton Wanderers followed but the energy and spark that set him out back in the late nineties seemed to be missing from Japan’s footballing dragon.

After winning his seventy-seventh cap against Brazil in Dortmund during the 2006 World Cup, Nakata announced he was quitting the game.

He has since said:

“Day after day I realised that football had just become a big business,” 

“I could feel that the team were playing just for money and not for the sake of having fun. I always felt that a team was like a big family, but it stopped being like that.”

“I was sad, that’s why I stopped at only 29.”

It’s a particular shame because Nakata (like Beckham) was never given the credit he deserved for being a truly gifted footballer. The business, the PR and the marketing side of the things always seem to cloud people’s judgements when they discuss these two footballers.

My interest in Hidetoshi Nakata didn’t disappear when he hung up his boots. For some reason, I periodically reach out to learn more about the man who walked away at a young age but who gave the game so much in that short timescale.

Thankfully for me, it’s no longer 1998 and I can keep tabs on the man (It’s turning a bit stalker-y now isn’t it?)

Nakata Fashion

So what has Nakata been doing with himself since 2006?

Like Beckham (perhaps more like Victoria than David) Hidetoshi has shown a fascination with the fashion industry. He always carried a style about him, he also had a similar amount of haircuts as Beckham (David this time). His heightened sense of style has seen the Japanese star cover the glossy fashionista magazines and at the side of many a famous designer runway. His look is all about looking sharp, smart and being a trendsetter.

The Japanese icon has also done a stint of modelling and ‘like you know who’ (*cough* Becks) Nakata has been caught in his briefs in an ad campaign!

In footballing terms Nakata was Japan’s greatest export. He is still immensely proud of his Japanese heritage and history. Even after collecting a various amount of new stamps on his passport, Nakata finally decided to truly find himself he had to investigate his homeland in great detail.

Courtesy of GQ 2012

Courtesy of GQ 2012

By visiting Japan’s forty-seven prefectures he ‘reconnected’ with his own country. That lead him to see that once again he could become a great exporter for Japan but this time it was his lands culture he would share with the world not his footballing talents.

Nakata would go on and develop a Japanese Sake with brewery Takagi Shuzo, calling it “N” by Hidetoshi Nakata. For those that don’t know, Sake is a rice wine that is favoured by the Japanese people. In 2012 during the Olympic games, Nakata would open up a Sake bar in London.

The thirty-eight year old returned to his footballing roots and has he played in various charity matches helping raise funds after natural disasters ripped through Asia in the last four years like Tsunamis, floods and earthquakes.

Nakata has come to understand the good that football can bring to life:

“I think football is huge. I think football is the best tool to communicate with other people, to connect the people,”

When it came to finally writing this article, I knew I was going to mention David Beckham but I never realised just how similar these two gentleman are.

Their talents and charisma go well beyond football. They are icons, trendsetters and men who can actually influence the non-footballing world. Both are often undervalued as footballers, seen more as great marketeers! But they were extremely talent players.

I also didn’t realise just how much Hidetoshi Nakata has influenced my life.

In 1998 I sat up and took notice of this flame haired footballer born in the land of the raising sun. Seventeen years on and I have bought a Perugia strip and a Japan kit just because of my admiration for Nakata.

I have since developed a love for sushi and Japanese food as a whole (you cannot beat a great bento box!). Now maybe I would have tried sushi without Nakata in my life but I doubt I would have taken such an interest in Japanese culture had I not noticed him during France 98.

To be honest I am probably going to buy a bottle of Sake in the next forty-eight hours after researching this piece.

Some footballers retire and that’s that. Yet some like Hidetoshi Nakata bow out early and yet even after nine years I still wonder what he is doing and think about his fantastic contribution to the game of football.

I am glad that football is no longer a burden and just big business in Nakata’s eyes and that he can give something back with his talents and because of his footballing stature.

Arigatō Nakata-san!

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