When Hidetoshi Nakata hung up his boots after Germany 2006, Japan craved a new hero. They found one in the shape of Shunsuke Nakamura, who had made his international debut six years earlier but came into his own following the legendary midfielder’s retirement.
With extrasensory vision and impeccable precision on his passes, Nakamura is a supreme playmaker. He is also one of the finest dead-ball specialists on the planet.
Having played in Italy, Scotland and Spain, the 31-year-old, now back in his homeland with Yokohama Marinos, is a figure of huge influence in Takeshi Okada’s team and remains one of the most idolised players in all of Asia.
Nakamura fell in love with the sport at the age of five, but struggled to earn a professional contract at Yokohama Marinos, principally due to his slight build. However, he eventually convinced the club to take a chance on him in 1997, and it was a decision the Nissan Stadium outfit would not regret.
By the late-1990s, Nakamura was a vital cog in their team, and he enjoyed a superb season in 2000, when he was named Japanese Footballer of the Year. Two years later he suffered the most agonizing moment of his career by being left out of his nation’s squad for the FIFA World Cup.
Nakamura swiftly signed for Reggina, hoping the switch to Italy would help him mature into a more complete, consistent player. On an individual level, some would argue that he was a success on Calabria, but the team’s struggles prompted him to seek a fresh challenge in 2005. Despite being linked with Atletico Madrid, Deportivo La Coruna, Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach, he found it in Glasgow.
By now, Nakamura has evolved into a harder-working player and this impressed his new manager, Gordon Strachan. He was named man of the match on his debut, a victory over Dundee United, and illuminated Scottish football during his four years there, enjoying a season to remember in 2007, when he won a plethora of individual awards and helped the Bhoys do the league and cup double.
After a brief, unfruitful spell at Espanyol in 2009, he returned to his homeland – and his maiden employers – for the start of the 2010 campaign.
When Zico assumed the Japan reins following the FIFA World Cup in 2002, he immediately entrusted Nakamura with playmaking duties. The brilliant No.10 responded in style. He competed in the 2003 and 2005 editions of the FIFA Conederations Cup, pocketing the adidas Bronze Shoe in the former, and at Germany 2006, scoring in a defeat by Australia.
One of the most successful Japanese footballers in history, Nakamura played in 11 of the Samurai Blue’s South Africa 2010 preliminaries.