Keisuke Honda and Makoto Hasebe have rapidly emerged as Japan’s leading lights this past year. The former became his country’s most high-profile player thanks to some superb performances for CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League, while the latter inherited the Blue Samurai captaincy from Yuji Nakazawa.
Shunsuke Nakamura, meantime, has watched his reputation descend, having struggled to rediscover his best form since returning from an ankle injury. The former Celtic playmaker nevertheless believes he has a crucial function to play for Japan at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, even if he is no longer the side’s principal star.
“I think my role is help control the play and dictate the rhythm,” Nakamura told FIFA. “I am not really a captain but I am good at creating chances and finding gaps in opponents’ final third. The last time we won a World Cup game was in 2002, so I really want to win matches this time.”
Since the retirement of the iconic Hidetoshi Nakata four years ago, Nakamura has been regarded as his natural successor. After steering Japan to last four at the AFC Asian Cup 2007, he went on to play an influential role as they sealed their fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup appearance with two games to spare.
After ending an eight-year European adventure to return to J.League side Yokohama Marinos in February, the attacking midfielder, whom former Tottenham Hotspur player Steve Perryman said “could open a tin of beans with his left foot”, has constantly been battling to recapture his best form.
With his injury taking its toll, he was sidelined for Japan’s 2-1 defeat by England. He has since embarked on rehabilitation, however, playing the full 90 minutes in their next friendly against Côte d'Ivoire and the first third in their last warm-up against Mozambique. Coach Takeshi Okada may have yet to be fully convinced that he is the same player who terrorised opponents in the Scottish Premier League, but the man himself is eager to prove his worth.
“I am not thinking about whether I will make the first team or if I will play all of our matches,” Nakamura said. “But I will do whatever I can for the team. I can read the game, catch opponents out with unexpected passes. I like this kind of technical play and I am always aware of that when I’m on the pitch.”
Nakamura broke the deadlock for Japan against Australia at Germany 2006, only to see the Socceroos clinch victory with three late goals. Four years on, needless to say, he is desperate to make up for that disappointment against Cameroon.
“The outcome will largely depend on how fiercely we attack and if we can find holes in their rearguard,” he said. “For me, I seek to play my style of football and help my team achieve a good result.”