Matsui following in Nakata's footsteps
© AFP

Japan's Daisuke Matsui has been relishing the chance to play against Europe's finest since signing for French first division side St Etienne, following in the footsteps of Hidetoshi Nakata.

Nakata, a former AFC Asian Player of the Year famed for his creativity and vision, spent seven years in Italy's top flight, before moving to English Premier League side Bolton in 2005 and then retiring a year later.

Ten-time French champions St Etienne topped off an excellent return to form last season, coming fifth to earn a well-deserved spot in the UEFA Cup. "I'd like to develop my game by playing with various teams and various players in European competition," Japan international Matsui said following his dream move to Saint Etienne in May.

The 27-year-old spent four years at Japanese team Kyoto Purple Sanga before joining French side Le Mans in 2004, going on to score 15 goals in 119 appearances to help the club win promotion to the first division. He was also instrumental in the side's League Cup run last season, netting a powerful strike in the shock defeat of Lyon, as Le Mans went through to the semi-finals for the third time in three successive years.

Beautiful player
"From my playing experience against them, I know Saint Etienne are a side who can decide a game when they have to," Matsui said. "They always have a full stadium at their home games. I believe it is a joy for a player to be playing in front of crowds like that but I'd like to be accepted by the supporters first."

His form with the Kyoto-based J-League side earned Matsui his first national call-up in 2003 for the FIFA Confederations Cup, and he has gone on to appear on a regular basis, scoring once. His performances for club and country led St Etienne chief executive Vincent Tong-Cuong to pay Matsui the ultimate compliment of likening him to a pioneering Japenese football legend.

"I want him to be a fans' favourite in St Etienne, and become a successor to Hidetoshi Nakata," Tong-Cuong said recently. "Matsui is a beautiful player, with very good technique, speed and talent to beat his opponents," Tong-Cuong added. "I think Matsui can play well for us in the UEFA Cup."

Matsui had been linked to a host of top European clubs including Lazio, Werder Bremen and Celtic, a move which would have seen him team up with another Japanese star, Shunsuke Nakamura.

St Etienne play their first French first division match of the 2008/09 season at Valenciennes on Saturday.