The Japan team that competed at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ boasted two of the greatest midfielders in Asian football history in Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura. Following the former’s post-tournament retirement, however, the latter was left to shoulder an immense weight of responsibility.
The emergence of the 31-year-old free-kick specialist’s namesake, Kengo, has nevertheless shifted some of the burden. Now the Nakamuras will set out to work in tandem and help their country reach the Round of 16 and beyond at South Africa 2010.
An Asian great
Shunsuke is not only an outstanding player, but he also has a wealth of experience in Europe. He turned out for Reggina from 2002 until 2005, before joining Celtic. Nakamura came into his own for the Bhoys, starring in the UEFA Champions League and helping them win three successive Scottish Premier League titles. The Yokohama-born ace also pocketed the Scottish PFA Players' Player of the Year and Scottish Football Writers' Association Player of the Year in the 2006/07 season.
“I think I got stronger and stronger there,” the Yokohama Marinos playmaker recalled of his time in Glasgow. “I could not play my football at Reggina because of their kick-and-rush style, but I was released from that stress in Scotland. My Celtic team-mates were top-class footballers, so it was easy for me to enjoy their pass-and-move style.”
Gordon Strachan, Namamura’s manager at Celtic, once described him as “one of the most brilliant playmakers I have ever seen”. Renowned for his free-kicks, including Japan’s opener against Australia at Germany 2006 and a stunning goal against Manchester United in the Champions League later that year, the N10 is also a master at creating chances with perfectly-weighted through-balls and crosses.
It will be tough but I believe Japan can surprise the world. Our aim is still the same: to reach the semi-finals.
Nakamura joined Espanyol last year but, fed up with warming the bench in Catalonia, swiftly returned to his city of birth to rejoin the Marinos. He is confident the Samurai Blue can excel at South Africa 2010, where they will face the Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon in an examining Group E.
“We played the Netherlands last September in a friendly and lost 3-0. The Dutch were really strong,” Nakamura commented. “Cameroon have Samuel Eto’o up front. Denmark should be much stronger than the Croatia team we played in the first phase at Germany 2006.
"It will be tough but I believe Japan can surprise the world. Our aim is still the same: to reach the semi-finals.”
Renwoned in Asia, little-known elsewhere
Another Japanese player to keep an eye on in South Africa is Kengo Nakamura. He is, at 29, arguably in the form of a club career he has spent entirely at Kawasaki Frontale.
Nakamura models his game on that of former Barcelona and Spain great Pep Guardiola, although Japan coach Takeshi Okada has urged him to assume a Steven Gerrard-type role. If the 53-year-old decides to employ, as expected, a 4-2-3-1 formation at the global finals, the Kodaira native could play as a defensive midfielder or as one of the three playmakers. Wherever he operates, Nakamura is likely to impress non-Asian fans; the majority of whom have not seen his excellent distribution and ability to shoot powerfully from distance.
“We are not afraid of any big teams, even the Netherlands,” he told FIFA.com last December. “When Japan played them last September, we played very well in the opening half, creating more chances than them and dominating territorially.
One thing is for sure: Japan’s chances of turning that 3-0 loss into a victory over the Oranje rest abundantly on their two Nakamuras.