On Wednesday 12 March 2008, Hidetoshi Nakata paid a visit to FIFA to discuss his plans with world football's governing body. FIFA.com took the opportunity to have a general chat with the former Japan star.
Nakata was an unusual player and one of the very first Japanese stars to grace European football. After starting out in the J.League at the age of 18, he was voted Asian Player of the Year at 20 (1997) and again the following year. Leaving for Italy after the 1998 FIFA World Cup, he played for Perugia, Roma, Parma, Fiorentina and Bologna, before enjoying a final spell with Bolton in England.
The manner of the Nakata's retirement was no less dramatic: in 2006 at the age of 29, he simply decided overnight to quit. Since then, he has been travelling, taking in one hundred countries from Bhutan to Ghana by way of Europe. And everywhere he goes, he unpacks his boots and plays football.
This need to "see the world" seems insatiable and his quest is far from over. However, he would love to continue it while helping people the world over find the resources and infrastructures they need to play the beautiful game. Consequently, on returning from Madrid and before jetting off to Hong Kong, the flame-haired former playmaker decided to drop in on FIFA in search of aid and advice.
FIFA.com: Hidetoshi, could you tell us why you've come
to visit with FIFA?
Hidetoshi Nakata: It's the first time I've been to FIFA HQ, and I have to say it's a superb building. I've been to Zurich before but I never had the chance to visit football's governing body, so now that's one more thing ticked off my list! I've been travelling a lot since retiring in 2006 as I wanted to see the world, and, in doing so, I've realised that the whole world loves football. So I said to myself: 'perhaps I could do something for football, through football'. Naturally, I immediately turned to FIFA to advise me and help me find the best way of achieving this.
What is your idea in practical terms?
Ideally, I'd like to do something for people, fans from all over the world, while at the same time having fun playing football. I've always played the game and I want to continue doing so, but not everywhere has places to play, pitches or organisations. I want to help give everyone a chance to play by arranging games and training sessions, and I want to involve as many people as possible, as football exists through people and their enthusiasm, and it conveys many messages.
You finished your career at 29, which is early for a
footballer. Do you sometimes get bored?
Not at all! But there's no such thing as being too young to stop or too old to carry on. I mean, I might wake up one morning at the age of 50 and say: 'I want to play football.' It was nothing to do with age; it was just my time to quit.
And what have you been doing since hanging up your boots?
I've been travelling for two years now and I intend to carry on whatever happens, as I need to see what's going on everywhere in the world. I've visited a hundred countries, but there are still plenty more. There are 208 associations in FIFA, so I've only been to half of them and have so much still to discover.
Which places have been most memorable on your
Bhutan and Tibet were very special, as it's rare to be able to visit them. But even in these inward-looking countries, football is popular. Over there, I played with monks, with the royal family of Bhutan. It really was quite unique. Then on a totally different note, I was in Africa for a month, in numerous different countries. It's a continent where everywhere you go, people are playing football. The Africans are very open and hospitable and I made numerous friends. I was really thrilled and loved playing football with such adorable people. The more I travel, the more I think about the game.
How do you see the future of Japanese football?
The standard of play in Asia has come on enormously in recent years and there are numerous emerging teams. The same can be said of Europe, as England's failure to qualify for the European Championships shows. Similarly, at the recent Africa Cup of Nations, we saw the usual big guns struggle. The standard of football worldwide is levelling out, I reckon. And that's a good thing, as no one wants to see 10-0 wins. Having strong competition is good for the game.
In Asia, the status quo seems to be shifting, if Iraq's
AFC Cup success is anything to go by. What is your feeling about
Iraq's victory in the Asian Cup was no surprise to me. The middle eastern countries were very strong in Asia a few years ago, then the eastern nations such as China, Korea and Japan took up the running. Now once again, the middle east is back at the vanguard. That's football for you, impossible to predict!
Now that you are on the outside looking in, what team do
you enjoy watching most at the moment?
I can't really follow football closely as I'm always on the road. But I was in Madrid a couple of weeks ago and caught the game between Real and Roma, as Fabio Cannavaro is a good friend and I used to play for Roma. It was a great contest between two good sides. I really enjoy watching football at the moment, as it's superb entertainment when played at this level.
Do you still have friends in the game?
I played for quite a while at a high level, including eight years in Europe, so I still know quite a few people in the game. I don't see them all that often though, because I'm not often in their neck of the woods, but it's good when I do see them from time to time.