Hidetoshi Nakata juggles the ball above the rooftops of the Italian city of Perugia.
Photo: Dukas

At 22 years of age Hidetoshi Nakata has already been voted Asia's "Player of the Year" two seasons in a row, and now as the first Japanese ever to do so he is making a hit in Europe. In his first year with AC Perugia in the Italian Serie-A he caused quite a sensation, and the level of excitement back home is reaching hysteria level.

Kazuyoshi Miura got his name entered in the record book of Japanese football when he became the first player from his country to get into Italian football. But Miura, for years Nippon's best known and most popular player, did not really make it with FC Genoa. When another Serie-A club, AC Perugia, paid 3.6 million US dollars for Hidetoshi Nakata a lot of Italians thought it was some kind of joke. But Nakata has silenced those critics who thought that a Japanese player would not be able to succeed in the elite atmosphere of Italian football - for Nakata has done just that. In his very first match for AC Perugia he caused a sensation by scoring two goals against the mighty Juventus Turin. Italy was astounded. The media heaped praise on the Asian with the number seven shirt, wrote about his mazy dribbling and admired his intelligent play. Those goals against "Juve" were shown a number of times on various TV channels.

"Gioiellino" (little jewel) or Mr Hide - taken from his name Hidetoshi - are the names that are respectfully used for him, and not just among Perugia's fans. With ten goals in the 1998/1999 season he is already popular with neutral football lovers too. Two of his goals were particularly spectacular: a 25 m shot from a scissors kick against Piacenza and a volley from over 40 m against Udinese.

Hidetoshi Nakata
Date of birth:22 January 1977,
in Yamanashi (Japan)
Height:175 cm
Weight:72 kg
Clubs:1995 - 1998: Bellmare Hiratsuka (84 matches, 16 goals).
Since summer 1998: AC Perugia (33 matches, 10 goals)
Successes:World Cup participant 1998 (Japan's first appearance at a World Cup final round; eliminated after the group games against Argentina, Croatia, and Jamaica).
Asian Footballer of the Year (1998 and 1999).
28 international matches, 6 goals.
As of 31 July 1999
Nakata - the little jewel

"Fantasista", "Magico" screamed the Italian media. The magazine "Guerin Sportivo" voted Nakata as "Newcomer of the Year" - a new star was rising in Italy. Suddenly Nakata, who played a big part in preventing Perugia from being relegated to the Serie-B, became interesting to other clubs. AC Bologna offered around 15 million US dollars for his transfer, but the Gaucci family who are the owners of AC Perugia simply laughed and hinted that for that kind of money they might be able to buy one ear or one of Nakata's old boots. Even the 26 million USD that Italian newspapers have reported as being the sum that Champions' League winners Manchester United would be prepared to pay for the midfielder failed to move the Gauccis. The player himself says that he might consider a move to the English league in about six or seven years time at the soonest. Nakata feels at home in Italy and not only on the sporting side. He loves Italian cooking and likes to go out and eat in restaurants. But nonetheless he often stays home and sits for hours in front of his personal computer - a second passion after football. Perhaps he even takes a look at his own Internet home-page (www.Nakata.net). Many of the mid-fielder's Italians fans would be disappointed with this homepage - it is all in Japanese only.

More popular than the Emperor?

Nakata is not only the best player in Japan but also in the whole of Asia.
Photo: Dukas
At home in Japan Nakata has been a hero for years, dating back to the time when he played for Bellmare Hiratsuka. He was captain of that team and his performances as their playmaker soon saw him being called up for the national team. It was in no small measure due to him that Japan qualified for the finals of the World Cup in 1998 for the first time in their history. Although they were eliminated after the group games, Japanese interest in football showed no sign of declining.

Quite the opposite in fact. Since France 98 Nakata's popularity has been even greater back home. The euphoria that accompanies him is reaching alarming proportions: when he takes home leave, there is a crowd of media reporters present at Tokyo airport as if it were the Emperor himself coming in.

His image is everywhere in the country and he is the best advert for the 2002 World Cup that Japan and Korea will jointly host. As the chief ambassador for Japanese football and the idol of the country's youth, he is seen in advertising campaigns for perfumes, mineral water, automobiles, sports equipment and shoes, among other items. The three books that have been written about him have already sold over 500 000 copies. Even video-game sales have run into the hundreds of thousands. A video cassette made about him ran out of copies as the sales figures soared to a new level for video-cassettes.

Nakata's private life is taboo

Nakata's mission is to lead the Japanese national team to glory at the 2002 World Cup in Korea and in his own country.
Photo: Dukas
Nakata as the golden goose? Souvenir dealers are also delighted with the way things are going. In the last few months 75,000 AC Perugia shirts were sold - a club record, most of them to Japanese fans. His Asian followers will buy anything associated with the name Nakata - shirts, shorts, socks, caps, gloves, underwear, cups, watches, stickers.

Last season during the Italian championship, an estimated 3000 Japanese spectators were in Italy to watch each of Perugia's home games, many of whom had made a special trip from Tokyo or Osaka just to watch him play.

But despite being voted Asia's "Footballer of the Year" in 1998 and 1999, Nakata has not let all the fame go to his head. This player, whom the well-known French magazine "France Football" has rated among the top 50 in the world, is still a rather modest, quiet, fairly word-shy person, but he comes over as having a friendly and sympathetic nature. During media interviews he only allows a few questions, since his command of Italian is not yet very strong. Questions about his private life are dismissed categorically. Nakata, the superstar. He has been the one to show Europe what Japanese football is like and has proved that a Japanese player can take part in a top league and make people there sit up and take notice. Thanks to Nakata, Japanese footballers no longer cause patronising smiles in Europe. Further grounds for this were provided by the Japanese U-20 national team who took second place in the World Youth Cup in Nigeria last April.