As perhaps Japan’s biggest star going into the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, there is no doubt that huge pressure rests on Shunsuke Nakamura’s shoulders. Yet though the Samurai Blue’s path to the knockout stage is blocked by a fearsome trio of Denmark, the Netherlands and Cameroon, the creative midfielder is determined to help fulfil coach Takeshi Okada’s aim of a place in the last four.
Now back in his homeland with Yokohama F Marinos, following a spell in La Liga with Espanyol, Nakamura spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about Japan’s chances on South African soil, his lengthy experience in the European game and adapting to life in countries as contrasting as Italy, Scotland and Spain.
FIFA.com: Shunsuke, at first glance Japan appear to have been drawn in one of the toughest groups at South Africa 2010. Would you agree?
Shunsuke Nakamura: Everybody thinks the Netherlands are going to take first place in the group and that the other three teams will have to fight it out for second, but we’ve got to look further ahead than that. Our coach Takeshi Okada thinks we can reach the semi-finals and the team has to be able to live up to those expectations and achieve that goal, which would clearly be a huge success for us and our country.
Do you think the time is right for Asian sides to cause a stir at the FIFA World Cup?
It’ll be tough. There currently aren’t many Asian players at European sides, whereas there are a lot of Africans, even at the very top clubs. So it seems to me that Africa has the edge on us at the moment. That doesn’t mean that the situation might not change in the future because there’s a lot of talent in Asia, but the reality is that for now we’re still lagging behind.
Given that you are nearly 32, this FIFA World Cup could well be your last. Will you be looking to relax and enjoy the experience?
Every match is special, because at my age any game could be my last. That’s why I’m going to do my very best to enjoy the World Cup, just like I did when I was in Spanish football and what I’ll continue to do for the next few months in Japan. Every minute counts and I want to squeeze as much out of each one as possible.
Do you feel a more complete player after your experience in European leagues?
I’ve played in a lot of countries and it’s hard adapting to different styles of football. Of course, playing in a stronger European league teaches you things and they’re reflected in the way you play the game. Of course I feel that I’m a more complete player thanks to this experience, what I’ve been through in Europe was very different to what I’d have experienced if I’d spent my whole career in Japan.
What do you think would help Asian players reach the summit of the world game?
I think that it’s key that Asian players start heading to European football at a younger age, and I reckon that’s happening now bit by bit. There are a crop of lads of 16, 17 years of age who are starting to make their way in Europe, and that will lead to very good results in the future.
What did you do to try and adapt to life in the various countries where you played?
When I first arrived in a new country I used to try to fit in with the locals, but over time I’d go back to my Japanese customs, because they are what I know best. Food-wise too, because that (Japanese food) is what my body is used to. Well, I’d try to blend in everywhere except in Italy, where they all look like models! It’s impossible to blend in there.
Where did you feel most at home?
On arriving in a new country I’d try to make myself at home at quickly as possible, and I generally managed to do that. But I really struggled in Glasgow, Scotland, where it used to rain all the time. I found that really hard, and so did my family. And it’s strange but that’s perhaps where I enjoyed most success.
You are a huge star in your homeland, though you were a relatively small fish in a big European pond. Is that why you went back to Japan?
No, not in the slightest. I played in Italy, Scotland and Spain and I used to focus fully on what was happening in those countries - I didn’t miss what was going on in Japan at all. I’m a footballer and what matters is my job. Where I do it isn’t important.
And how about turning out for the national team? Did you really thrive on being called up and having your fans behind you?
Well, there was so much travelling involved (in coming from Europe for Japan games). At least now I’ll be nearer.
Finally, in hindsight do you think that it was a mistake to leave Celtic and sign for Espanyol?
I enjoy challenges. If I was Scottish I’d have carried on playing for Celtic until they wanted rid of me, but I felt like it was time to learn new things, and to be honest starting every game wasn’t the biggest factor for me. Later on I felt that it was time to go back to Japan, but I don’t regret signing for Espanyol in the slightest. The experience was invaluable.