The silky skills and lethal left foot of Hiroshi Nanami were central to Japan's maiden qualification for the FIFA World Cup™ and Jubilo Iwata's dominance of the J.League in the late 1990s. FIFA.com reflects on the career of the former playmaker, who shares his thoughts on playing alongside Hidetoshi Nakata, adapting to the Italian Serie A, and his country's South Africa 2010 hopes.
Nanami began his professional career with Jubilo Iwata in 1995, and quickly went on to earn the first of his 67 international caps. "I was lucky to have played with some wonderful players," Nanami said of his club career. "Guys like Salvatore Schillaci, Masashi Nakayama and Naohiro Takahara kept the goals flowing, so having them made it easier to define our roles in the team."
The slightly-built Nanami initially had doubts about whether he had the strength and pace to succeed as a professional, but he gained assurance by employing a deft touch to set up Schillaci's winner in the Shizuoka derby against Shimizu S-Pulse in 1995. At the time, Jubilo boasted several other big-name internationals, including Dutchman Gerald Vanenburg and Dunga of Brazil, and the experience of playing in such a talented line-up would have a lasting effect on Nanami.
"I learned about the subtleties of positioning from Vanenburg, and Dunga always gave exactly the right instructions for the situation. I learned so much from them, which I tried to pass on to younger players as my career wound down," explained the 36-year-old.
Despite scoring in his first two games for Japan, the attacking midfielder struggled to win over many fans, who felt he was undeserving of the coveted No10 jersey. However, as the influence of Hidetoshi Nakata grew in France 1998 qualification, Nanami was utilised in a more defensive role. There, Nanami's slick passing became an integral part of Japan's new 3-5-2 formation, and his understanding with Nakata and fellow midfielder Motohiro Yamaguchi helped guide the team into their first FIFA World Cup.
"Having Nakata on the national team helped me greatly, because he would sit in behind the forwards and that allowed me to play my own game just behind him," Nanami recalled. "I soon realised that my combination with Yamaguchi formed the fulcrum of the team and that we could help Nakata play his natural game."
Nanami spent the 1999/2000 season on loan with Italy's Venezia, after which he returned to his homeland to spend a further six years with Jubilo. Late in his career the Shizuoka native had loan spells with Cerezo Osaka and Tokyo Verdy, but persistent injury problems there persuaded him to again return to Jubilo, where he would hang up his boots in 2008.
"I really felt that I'd done all I could do. Looking back, I had a very satisfying 14-year career. I have no regrets," said Nanami, who was named in the J.League Best XI four times and the AFC Asian Cup's most valuable player in 2000.
"My greatest footballing memory is contributing to Jubilo's golden era [the club won the J.League three times, albeit once when Nanami was in Italy, and the Asian Club Championship between 1997 and 2002]. "I don't really focus on certain games or goals or moments, but rather on how I could contribute to the process of strengthening the team. When I first started out, I spoke about how I wanted people to look at what I could do with my left foot. Throughout my 14 years in the game, I got a thrill when I heard the public or the media refer to me as 'Lefty Nanami'. The fact that my opponents were also wary of my left foot shows that I was as good as my word."
Nanami's passion for football still burns brightly. Currently an adviser for Jubilo and a television analyst, he is also weighing up a possible move into coaching. Given his experiences, he would certainly have plenty to pass on.
"I was full of confidence when I went to Italy, but I had problems with the different style of play, overcoming the language barrier, and other things," he said. "But that season really helped me mature as a player and a person, and I felt that I was a better pro when I came back to Japan. I told that to the younger guys when I was playing. If I decide to take on a coaching role, I'll tell them the same thing."
With Japan poised to qualify for South Africa 2010, Nanami is hopeful that Takeshi Okada's players will be able to express themselves on football's biggest stage. "I'm curious to see to what extent the players can execute the Japanese style of football and, as individuals, perform on a level that makes the world sit up and take notice," he added. "They need to apply themselves and set their sights on improving their abilities. I hope they can grow as a team and as individuals by remembering that their collective goal is to make the side better."