It is not so long since Japan's midfield was the envy of the entire Asian continent; the all-star quartet of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura, Junichi Inamoto and Shinji Ono offering an array of talent that left rival coaches salivating.
These days, however, with Nakata in retirement and Inamoto and Ono struggling to live up to the promise they showed at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, Japanese hopes of reaching South Africa 2010 were always expected to rest on Nakamura's magical left foot. Yet for the first six months of Takeshi Okada's reign, the Celtic playmaker was not called up to a single squad, with the new regime believing they could cope without prising Nakamura from his Scottish employers.
In truth, the player himself was doing little to justify selection. Voted Scotland's Player of the Year the season before for his artistry, craft and set-piece wizardry, Nakamura had returned from his exertions at the AFC Asian Cup 2007 a pale shadow of that award-winning player of the previous campaign. With his lacklustre showings contrasting sharply against those of Aiden McGeady, Celtic's new creative focal point, on the opposite flank, there were even suggestions that for all manager Gordon Strachan's enduring and laudable loyalty, the time had come for Nakamura to be sidelined by his club as well as his country.
As it transpired, however, March and April brought about two fateful turning points that drew Japan and their star midfielder back together - and shaped their respective seasons.
For the national team, theirs was a humbling and hugely worrying 1-0 FIFA World Cup preliminary defeat by Bahrain, the nation's first qualifying reverse outside the final round since 1989. The result sparked a major inquest, with 'crisis' headlines splashed across Japan's back pages along with savage criticism of the crude and ineffective tactics employed by Okada.
Fortunately for Japan, Nakamura's season was also about to be transformed. The 29-year-old's turning point came in the shape of a goal, but not just any goal: this was Nakamura's first in Glasgow's fabled Old Firm derby. It was also, if the player himself is to be believed, the best of his entire career, and his fizzing, viciously-swerving 30-yard drive certainly sparked a remarkable revival in fortunes for club and player that ended with Celtic celebrating the unlikeliest of championship triumphs.
Later, Nakamura would reveal that Celtic's first-team coach and former captain, Neil Lennon, had grabbed him by the shirt before the match in the dressing room and told him that this was to be his day; that he was to be the hero. "He gave me special powers, I think," the midfielder reflected with a smile.
Unsurprisingly, with his critics sharpening their knives, Okada proved less reluctant to utilise these 'special powers' when Japan's next major test came around. " ," he said of Nakamura. "We cannot afford to lose the World Cup qualifiers. We are determined to win."
I have realised
anew his presence, the accuracy of his play and the fact that he is
a player with very high ability to read how the game
Nakamura, therefore, was recalled for the friendly Kirin Cup tournament, and Japan witnessed an immediate response as the trophy was retained with performances of ever-increasing pace and fluidity. Midfielder Yasuhito Endo summed up the difference when he said: "With Shun (Nakamura) in the game, we could find where to put the ball."
The returning hero, playing through the pain of a recurring
thigh injury, admitted feeling a "sense of crisis" around
Japan's ailing preliminary campaign, and immediately set his
sights on inspiring the team to victory in all four of their
remaining matches. Nakamura also revealed a long-standing debt to
Okada from the coach's first stint in charge, during which he
called up the then-teenage midfielder for a training camp ahead of
Japan's FIFA World Cup debut at France 1998.
"I didn't believe I had reached the national team level then. But he told me that I have some stuff which others don't," Nakamura recalled. "He gave me the chance, which made me hang in there and grow up."
77 not out
That 'stuff' was certainly in evidence when Nakamura kicked off Japan's comeback in Group 2 with a starring, goalscoring performance in a 3-0 win over Oman on Matchday 3. He then played a crucial role as the East Asians came from a goal behind to claim a point in the return meeting, only to arrive in Thailand last weekend nursing a fresh ankle injury that should ordinarily have kept him in the stands.
However, such is Nakamura's determination to fire Japan to the finals, not to mention Okada's recognition of his importance, that both men agreed the midfielder would take painkillers to see him through the match. The result was that the Celtic star lasted 70 minutes of a tough, physical encounter, more than enough time for him to set the Japanese on the road to a 3-0 win that sealed the team's passage to the final phase of Asian qualifiers.
"It was an important game so I wanted to play," he said afterwards. "I was going to go as long as I could. The painkiller was going to wear off at some point, so I was worried the whole time about playing hard, more than trying to play well."
By playing through the pain, Nakamura also ensured that he drew
level with Nakata on the 77-cap mark, and he could surpass his
fellow legend on Sunday should he once again defy medical advice by
chasing revenge for Japan and Okada against Bahrain.
"The coach (Okada) is thinking about resting me," said Nakamura of the match between the section's top two. "But the ankle could heal by the weekend. I want to play. If it were up to me, I would want the chance to get back at them because I wasn't around for the away game. We want some payback."
Regardless of whether he is risked, with spirit and skill in such equal abundance, Nakamura will surely remain the pivotal figure in Japan's ongoing quest to reach South Africa.