Shunned on his own doorstep at the last FIFA World Cup, Shunsuke Nakamura has spent the last three years proving Philippe Troussier's decision not to pick him even more baffling than it first appeared. After a hardening in Serie A, the 27-year-old playmaker this summer made the move to Scotland and Glasgow Celtic where he will be given the adoration his divine talent deserves. FIFA.com talked to the Japanese idol at the beginning of another World Cup season.
It was a rainy day on 14 June in Osaka when Japan clinched qualification to the knockout stages of the 2002 FIFA World Cup™. The whole population, it seemed, was out on the streets that night hailing its heroes who, never having gained a point in the competition before, had remarkably topped their group. Nakata, Ono, Inamoto and co. had given the country, co-hosting the finals, the one thing demanded most - respect.
But one favourite had long been forgotten. When their then French coach Troussier announced Japan's squad shortly before the finals, the omission of Yokohama F. Marinos' J-League player of 2000, Shunsuke Nakamura, had caused consternation among the land's football followers. A similarity in style to golden boy Hidetoshi Nakata and the belief that his fragile physique might not withstand the rigours of intense competition appeared to be the reasons for the star's exclusion from the greatest of football stages. So while a sea of blue washed over Japan, a shattered Nakamura was coming to terms with rejection and its ultimate significance that he would not be able to complete his proposed move to FIFA's Club of the Century - Real Madrid.
Holding Zico's number
The coming of Zico to Japan's coaching helm was a godsend for Nakamura, who many feared might have been psychologically scarred. Not only could the former Flamengo and Brazil great empathise with the Yokohama talent as a player, but he also had the courage to play Nakamura and Nakata in the same team.
To be honest, the wisp of a lad was making it easy for him. Meating out to almost 70 kilos and standing close to 1.8 metres, Nakamura had learned to ride the falls after successfully following Nakata into the hardest of football lands. With his natural ability, wiry strength and exquisite free kicks, he was winning rave reviews at Reggina, and at the end of each season performed outstandingly in Japan blue. Wearing the same number as worn by Zico, his magical left foot seduced audiences at the FIFA Confederations Cup France 2003, the Asian Cup China 2004 and, this June, at the FIFA Confederations Cup Germany 2005 as, mixing it with the world's best, he consolidated his position as the creative leader of the team.
At the peak of his powers, Spain's free-flowing La Liga seemed perfect for Nakamura's creative style but Japan's No. 10 instead opted for the more combative Scottish league, causing a few eyebrows to be raised.
"It was an offer from a big club with a long history," explains Nakamura. "I thought it was a good opportunity for me to move onto the next stage of my career. At Reggina, we were one of the weaker teams in the league and the emphasis was always on defence, but, with Celtic being the strongest club in Scotland, it's a question of unlocking defences. There is great pressure and expectation and this attracts me. The experience will be invaluable for the national team."
But within days of putting pen to paper in Glasgow, Celtic, European Cup winners in 1967, were handed arguably their worst defeat in history, a 5-0 hammering in Slovakia against Artmedia, a result which would eventually lead to elimination from the UEFA Champions League.
"Yes, I'm a bit disappointed not to be playing in the Champions League," admits Nakamura. "But we just have to concentrate on winning the SPL - that is the only thing I am thinking about. We can win the league!"
Under the spotlight
Hundreds of Japanese journalists have descended on Scotland's biggest city as camera crews track the player's every move, but the midfielder has been startled most by the attention given to him by locals.
"I really enjoy playing at Celtic Park. The ground is always full. Each time you do something, the crowd cheers - that gives you confidence," he says.
While 60,000 fans packed the stadium for the match against Dundee United, three million of his fellow countrymen stayed up until the early hours of the morning to watch his first outing in the famous green-and-white hoops. Nerveless before the Bhoys' deafening vocal support, it was a devastating debut.
"That's as good a debut as I've seen, for a long, long time," said his Celtic coach Gordon Strachan. "There was a lot of pressure on him, not just here but also back in his homeland."
"It's not always easy to play in a new environment, but I think I gave a good account of myself," adds the player modestly.
Unable to speak English but ever-eager to get on with his team-mates, Nakamura is taking language classes and has enlisted the help of an interpreter for dressing room talks.
"It's important to communicate well with your team-mates and to let them know who you are," he explains. "You need to make an effort to fit in. Going out for dinner is a good idea for example."
For the moment, he is allowing the ball to do the talking.
"He is a very clever player," said Welsh striker John Hartson. "He finds holes to play the ball in… he has a bit of magic."
But it has not been plain sailing for Nakamura. The biggest fixture in Scotland and among the world itself passed him by, as Rangers defeated Celtic 3-1 at Ibrox. And surprisingly it is Hearts who are currently topping the table as Nakamura acclimatises to the style of play.
"I have not been happy at all with my performances, especially in the match against Rangers," he says honestly. "I was looking forward to that game so much. But my fitness levels are improving and I will be at my best soon."
Another World Cup is just around the corner, something the Japanese idol has been waiting for since the day he discovered he would not be part of Troussier's plans.
But, as is his nature, Nakamura holds no grudges - just a desire to do justice to the talent he has been blessed with. And with Japan already qualified for Germany 2006, he is just eight months away from the chance to expose it to a watching world.