Hidetoshi Nakata – The Formative Years

The Greater Tokyo region is massive and it has a population greater than 13 million people deep. It’s easy to get lost in such a dense area or to conform to the noisy reality that comes with living in such built up surroundings. But getting lost in the shuffle or conforming to everyday life has never been the way for one Hidetoshi Nakata

The world of football started to take notice of Japan’s premier footballing competition The J1 League by the 1990s. Illustrious international stars such as Gary Lineker, Dragan Stojkovic, Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci and Careca had arrived on the countries shores to make some extra cash before retirement. In 1995 French boss Arsene Wenger, Brazil World Cup winning captain Dunga and Hugo Maradona (brother to Diego) all arrived to give the J1 League more legitimacy.

During that same year, a slight and almost geeky teenage local burst onto the Japanese football scene. 

Eighteen year old Hidetoshi Nakata arrived at Bellmare Hiratsuka (Now known as Shonan Bellmare) straight from Nirasaki High School. It was a 75 mile car journey to go from his native Kofu to Hiratsuka, a huge commitment for a young man to take as he began life as a professional footballer.

It’s quite probable that the young ‘Hide’ would have taken along a copy of Manga series Captain Tsubasa and its accompanying comic book which detailed the incredible footballing talents of young Japanese boy Tsubasa Oozora, who dreamt of winning the World Cup with his nation’s international soccer team.

Back in the 1980s, during Nakata’s formative years, baseball was the popular team sport that garnered the attention of the Japanese youth. Hidetoshi stated on FIFA TV that he nearly didn’t chase his footballing dreams:

“Actually, I was thinking of playing baseball or football. Then I chose football”.

FIFA TV – Youtube

In that era football only started to grow largely down to Yoichi Takahashi’s anime soccer creation and then it exploded with the influx of foreign stars into the J1 League in the 90s. Nakata, later in his career, would have the honour in starring in the Golden-23 arc of the Captain Tsubasa series. But this earliest of footballing tales shows a uniqueness that would follow Hide’s career. He didn’t follow any templates nor did he search out normal paths.

As a player Nakata was intelligent and like any good Manga book he possessed plenty of imagination and creativity. He was quickly thrust into the first team picture at Bellmare and made the most of his early opportunities. While he struggled to fill out the emerald green and blue striped Bellmare Hiratsuka jersey physically, he was already fitting into the team dynamic and making a difference on the pitch. He was predominantly an attacking midfielder who could find space on the left side, with the number eight proudly covering his lean back. He had a keen eye for goal and would often time his runs forward to perfection. Goals soon followed; he could strike the ball sweetly from just outside of the opposing team’s penalty area or he could tuck away chances after late bursts into the box. Each of his goals would see him produce a huge grin, be surrounded by is appreciative teammates and have his side’s fans celebrate joyously in the stands.

While still very raw and a bit rough around the edges, you could see an exciting young talent was definitely coming out of it’s shell and ready to showcase even more of his talents. Nakata had a nice first touch, a composure under pressure that belied his age and in his debut season with Bellmare he was finding the net regularly.

In truth Hide was a technically gifted young player, who wasn’t scared to put in the hard work. It’s those characteristics we now automatically assume comes with every Japanese player that makes it into their national team or who end up playing in various European leagues. Nakata was a true pioneer that others would follow.

After successfully winning The Emperor’s Cup in the season before Hidetoshi joined, Bellmare found themselves competing in the Asian Cup Winners Cup in late 1995.

In the opening rounds the Japanese side comfortably disposed of Malaysian club Sabah and the Indonesian’s Petrokimia Putra with both ties ending in a 7-1 on aggregate scoreline in favour of the Japanese cup holders. That was soon followed up with a Christmas Day sudden death triumph over fellow J1 League outfit Yokohama Flügels, Brazilian striker Èmerson was the hero that day as he scored all of Bellmare’s goals in a classic 4-3 win. Just two days later the Japanese top flight club would face Iraqi side Al Talaba in the final at the Mitsuzawa Stadium. Al Sabah enjoyed the luxury of having a few extra days off as they were handed a walkover in the semifinal stage after Saudi Arabian side Al-Riydah SC withdrew from the competition. Right sided fullback Akira Narashashi had given Bellmare Hiratsuka a one goal advantage in the 27th minute, which was cancelled out six minutes into the second half by Al Talaba’s Iraqi international forward Sabah Jeayer. As the minutes ticked down, each side were on the lookout for a hero to secure them the illustrious title.

That’s when Hidetoshi Nakata stepped up and announced himself on the biggest stage he had graced so far in his career with the winning goal!

To this day, this is still Bellmare Hiratsuka’s biggest achievement as it is their only triumph away from domestic duties. It was a moment that cemented a young Nakata into the history books of his first club.  At the end of that debut year, Hide had bagged himself a winners medal.

In total the youngster had played in 35 games and had scored ten goals for his new team. Those are quite extraordinary stats for a boy just finishing his first term in the game. He had also played and shone for his national side in the Under 20 World Championships, scoring twice as Japan qualified for the knockout stages (eventually losing out to runners up Brazil in the second round).  Nakata didn’t look out of place in a tournament that also boasted the likes of Raul, Nuno Gomes and Denilson. That tournament in Qatar showed Nakata that he could eventually compete in Europe against the game’s elite. 

Another long campaign followed in 1996.

This time young Hidetoshi competed in 44 fixtures with his club side. It was a pretty up and down season; Bellmare finished in 11th spot in the J1 League, would lose the Asian Super Cup convincingly to the winners of the Asian Club Championship South Korean’s dominant force at the time Ilhwa Chunma (Now known as Seongnam FC) and they also failed to retain the Asian Cup Winners Cup. They faired a bit better in the J1 League Cup, reaching the semi final stage before being crushed by a Fernando Nicolas Oliva inspired Shimizu S-Pulse side who would go on and win the competition. Now even with Bellmare enduring a mixed campaign that season, their precocious attack-minded midfielder had once again shined bright like a diamond in the midst of rubble. 

In 1996, Hidetoshi once again went to an international tournament. This time the United States of America was calling as Nakata made it into the Japanese Olympic football squad bound for the Atlanta games.

They were drawn into a pretty formidable group alongside tournament favourites Brazil, an exciting Nigeria team and European side Hungary.

Many may have fancied the Samurai Blue as being the whipping boys of the group. The Japanese hadn’t seen a squad qualify for the Olympics in the twenty-eight years previous to arriving in the land of the free that summer.

Any idea of Japan just coming to the party to make up the numbers were soon quashed in their opening game against the mighty Seleçâo.

In front of over 45,000 inside the baking hot Orange Bowl in Miami, Japan went into the fixture looking to cause an upset. Nineteen year old Hidetoshi Nakata was as always full of energy in the midfield and looking to push forward whenever he could.

It was the youngster who managed to have the first chance of the match. Ryuji Michiki galloped down the left flank, with Brazil’s chasing player failing to catch him Ryuji would float in an enticing cross with his left boot. Nakata would then steal a march on a sleeping Roberto Carlos at the back post but alas he could not direct his header towards Dida’s goal.

Brazil then started to dominate proceedings as you would expect from a team that boasted the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Bebeto. But the famous men in yellow just couldn’t blow away their tenacious, hardworking opponents.

Then on the 72nd minute a looped ball caused mayhem inside the Brazilian penalty area with the experienced defender Aldair touching the ball beyond his on rushing goalkeeper. Dida then flattened the AS Roma centre-back allowing a grateful Teruyoshi Ito to tap the ball into the empty net. The Japanese players and the team’s backroom staff celebrated wildly, not believing what had just happened.

Brazil would then bombard the Japanese goal for the remainder of the game but Japan’s keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi was up to the task in keeping them at bay and when he was finally beaten a man in blue was always on hand to help out with last ditch tackles and a goal-line clearance. Japan would hold on to their slender lead till the final whistle and claim one of their biggest ever international scalps! 

Next up would be Nigeria.

The Super Eagles were further along the road in their bid to be considered a footballing power on the international stage. Nigeria had secured a victory over Hungary in their opening Olympic outing  and their senior side had defeated Japan a year earlier in the Confederations Cup in a 3-0 drubbing.  Sunday Oliseh, Uche Okechukwu, Emmanuel Amunike and Daniel Amokachi all played in that triumph and would also face the Samurai Blue Under-23 side at Florida Citrus Bowl. The Nigerians would also have the exhilarating talents of youthful stars Nwankwo Kanu, Taribo West and Jay-Jay Okocha starting for them against Japan.

In somewhat of a surprise the game ended up being a nervy affair with both sides seeking out a victory that would almost certainly guarantee them a spot in the next round. Nigeria played much of the game in a manner more reminiscent of Japan, they didn’t play with their usual flashy swagger and instead were more workmanlike. It also became a bit of a tetchy duel as the two sides shared five yellow cards between them. Nakata’s endeavour once again couldn’t be faulted but the midfielder couldn’t create that chance to help secure his team that much hoped for three points. As the game went on the Japanese team started to become weary and their legs heavy, that vaunted win over The Seleçâo had taken a hefty toll on their fitness levels.

As Japan started to toll, Nigeria grew in confidence. On the 83rd minute Jef United’s Tadahiro Akiba would inadvertently put the ball into his own goal and hand Nigeria the lead. In the dying minutes, Japanese defender Hideto Suzuki would come under pressure inside his own box. Suzuki would then fall onto the ball, handling it in the process and give Italian referee Pierluigi Collina no option but to point to the spot. Jay-Jay Okocha would calmly step forward and pass his penalty into the bottom lefthand corner. Nigeria would reach the next stage and Nakata’s Japan would have to hope that they could beat Hungary, add some much needed goals to their goals for column and that The Super Eagles would do them a massive favour against Brazil. 

With Japan needing a win plus goals, coach Akira Nishino decided to sacrifice Hidetoshi from his starting eleven and play with three forwards instead of their usual one up-front policy. Nakata wouldn’t step onto the field of play as his teammates did indeed secure a very late history over their once mighty European rivals but the 3-2 scoreline wasn’t enough to see the young Japanese squad progress as Brazil managed to beat the Nigerians.

In the end, Nakata and his U-23 compatriots created a miracle in Miami and ended their group with six points – the same as Nigeria and Brazil. Only goal difference saw them eliminated. To show how strong that group actually was Brazil finished in third place, losing to eventual Gold medal winners Nigeria in the semifinal. Once again Nakata had proven himself on the international stage, a first call-up for the Blue Samurai senior side was surely on the cards in the young player’s immediate future. 

In 1997, Nakata was starting to reach the peak of his powers in his homeland as he was producing majestic performances that had the whole of Asian football talking.

Bellmare had become a swashbuckling free-flowing team. Brazilian forward Wagner Lopes, who would gain Japanese citizenship and represent the Blue Samurai, joined the club and strike up an instant instinctive relationship with Hide. Wagner was an intelligent hitman who was also good in the air. He thrived off of Nakata’s ability to spot an early pass and deliver the perfect ball into areas in which Lopes would be running into.

The hardworking and creative midfielder would also flourish more due to the arrival of South Korean internationalist Hong Myung-bo. The sweeper’s assurance in the backline gave the young Hidetoshi more freedom to get on the ball inside the half of opponents.

Nakata would now hold the number 7 jersey at Bellmare Hiratsuka and was now one of the club’s key components on the pitch as most of the team’s exciting possibilities were going through him. His eye catching passes, his great close control and his willingness to graft and work hard for the team made him a standout performer. While Bellmare Hiratsuka were still struggling to find consistency, they’d finish 8th out of 17 clubs that challenged for the title year,  Hide was consistently shining. He would win the Asian Player of the Month in May 97, be announced in the J League Best XI, named in the AFC All Star Team, win the Japanese equivalent of Sports Personality of the Year and topped it all off with the Asian Footballer of the Year award. 

His fine individual performances for his club that year would see Hidetoshi Nakata start a new adventure with the Japanese national senior side that would put him on the global stage.

Hide would head to France and shine at the 1998 World Cup. His performances that summer didn’t go unnoticed and soon the flame haired talent would be heading to Umbria and help I Grifoni reach mythical new heights in Serie A. 

But that’s a story for another time.

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