Nakamura savours Scottish adventure
So, Shunsuke Nakamura has proved a success in Scotland. It may be said: 'So what?' This, after all, is a player who shone in Serie A, excelled in the most esteemed of international company at the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup, and has been lauded by Japan coach Zico as 'the soul' of his national team's midfield.
Surely, therefore, it was nothing short of certain that he'd dazzle in a country that, for all the renowned devotion of its fans, is widely regarded as something of a football backwater?
One might be forgiven for believing so, but try telling that to the likes of Andrei Kanchelskis, Tore Andre Flo, Basile Boli, Juninho and Stephane Gui'varch. This illustrious quintet arrived on Scottish shores supposedly in their prime, laden down with a combined haul of winner's medals that included two from FIFA World Cup Finals™ and one from the UEFA Champions League, and at a cost, in transfer fees alone, of a cool £24 million. None found it remotely easy, and all are remembered in Glasgow with a rueful shake of the head.
Nakamura, by contrast, has not only avoided such an ignominious fate, but earned the affection of a demanding Celtic support and, in the process, become the first Asian player to win Scottish football's ultimate prize, the Premier League title.
"That makes me proud," Nakamura told FIFA.com. "Coming to Scotland was a big adventure for me, but I've established myself with a very big club and now I'm the first player from my country to become a winner here.
"I think you can only really judge your achievements at the end of your career but, so far, this would be the best thing I have done with any of my clubs.
"In Italy (where Nakamura played for three seasons with Reggina) I was fighting relegation most of the time and, although there was satisfaction in keeping my club in Serie A, every footballer dreams of winning trophies and playing in cup finals. Doing that with Celtic has been a special experience for me, something I'll always remember, and I'm happy to have played my part in the happiness of the fans."
'The touch of an angel'
Lithe, skilful and elegant, Nakamura has certainly added an exciting new dimension to Celtic's play, this under a manager, in Gordon Strachan, who recently described the 27-year-old as possessing "the touch of an angel."
"He tries to play the forward pass, the hard pass," says Strachan, whose predilection for playing wide midfielders on their weaker side has led to Nakamura making the bulk of his 36 Celtic appearances to date on the right wing, from where he's given licence to drift inside and display the power and unerring accuracy contained in his magical left foot.
Admittedly, he can appear lightweight at times and he has, at various stages of the season, been outshone by club colleagues such as Poland's Maciej Zurawski, Bulgaria captain Stilian Petrov and the Malaysia-born Scot, Shaun Maloney. However, a brace of excellent goals, including a trademark free-kick, in Celtic's recent 4-1 thrashing of Kilmarnock reminded everyone of why the 58-times capped midfielder has become such a favourite of the club's supporters, whose esteem, he insists, is mutual.
"The supporters here know their football," he has previously said. "They watch games and notice even the smallest piece of play and, if it's good, they applaud. It's really nice for players to hear that. In Italy, you only get applause for good tackles and for goals.
"In all my time at Celtic, even when I haven't played well, the fans here have always made me feel that I have their support and their trust," he said. "They are a big reason why I've enjoyed this season so much, and I'm pleased for them because the league title is theirs as much as it is the players'."
Celtic's commercial gains
It may be Nakamura's impact on the park which has impressed Celtic's 52,000 season ticket holders, but there has also been a commercial aspect to his signing, with the board of the Glasgow club recognising that Scottish football's low profile abroad left them needing to work that little bit harder, and smarter, to market their 'brand' in the emerging Far Eastern markets.
In this respect, the suggestions are that Nakamura's presence is paying off, with Celtic said to have already recouped, in image rights alone, £400,000 of the £2.7 million it cost them to acquire a player who, since moving to Glasgow, has had his every move relayed to an eager Japanese public by a posse of his homeland's journalists.
Even when attempts to broaden the club's appeal in the Far East by signing Chinese internationalist Du Wei fell through, Celtic pushed ahead undeterred, launching a Japanese language website reported to have received fully 200,000 hits on its first day, a figure that would, it's thought, represent just the tip of the iceberg were Nakamura to star at Germany 2006.
Next stop Spain?
The question, though, was never why Celtic chose Nakamura, but why Nakamura chose Celtic.
The 27-year-old had, after all, never made any secret of his ambition to play in Spain and, prior to agreeing terms in Glasgow, it was said that Athletico Madrid, Deportivo La Coruna and Racing Santander were all ready and willing to give him the opportunity to realise that dream. Nakamura, however, saw Scotland as representing an opportunity to further his football education, toughen up, and most importantly of all, celebrate meaningful success for the first time in a football career that began fully nine years ago at Yokohama F Marinos.
Indeed, although his desire to sample La Liga remains undiminished, and the links to Athletico persist, the 27-year-old considers his choice of destination to have been fully justified by a debut season that's yielded winner's medals from both the championship and the League Cup.
"What's happened has shown that I was right to come here," he continued. "I moved to Scotland to improve myself, but I also came to improve the level of the Celtic team and I think that I have achieved both of those things.
"Football is a team game and the greatest satisfaction always comes from winning titles and trophies with your team-mates. To have done that with Celtic makes me very happy."