22 June 2006 was a sad day for Japan's fanatical football followers. As if seeing their heroes lose 4-1 to Brazil to make an early exit from Germany 2006 were not bad enough, they also had to bid farewell to Hidetoshi Nakata after the national idol decided to call time on his professional career.
The inspirational midfielder, who only turned 30 at the start of this year, enjoys legendary status in his homeland after leading Japan to the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ and enjoying successful spells with Perugia, AS Roma, Parma, Bologna, Fiorentina and Bolton Wanderers.
FIFA.com caught up with Nakata in Tokyo, where he has just confirmed his involvement in helping promote the FIFA Club World Cup. And in an exclusive first interview since retiring from the game, he chatted about his new life, his love of the game and what the future might hold for him.
FIFA.com: Hidetoshi, we have lost track of you a little over the last year. What have you been up to since retiring from professional football?
Hidetoshi Nakata: I've been travelling around the world. The fact is I've been playing football all my life and it seemed like a good chance for me to visit different countries and see what's going on with my own eyes. That's why you won't have seen me in one place for very long.
Which countries did you go to?
A lot. I'd been living in Europe for eight years and I visited a lot of countries there. But when I retired I said to myself, "You're Japanese and you're Asian too. You've got to get to know Asia." And so, I ended up travelling the whole continent.
It has been over a year since you hung up your boots. Do you miss playing?
Of course. I love football. But it's not like I don't play anymore. Sometimes when I go to other countries I like to play with different people. For example, I was in Bhutan a little while ago and I had a kickabout with some monks there. And sometimes I come across people chasing after a ball in the street. Football has become such a big game that it's played all over the planet, so you never have any trouble finding a game when you fancy one.
Is your football career over for good or are you thinking about returning as a coach or an agent one day?I honestly don't think I'd make a very good coach or agent. I always enjoyed playing football but not coaching it. I can't rule it out completely, but maybe I'll want to start playing again one day. I don't know ( laughs).
Let's talk about the FIFA Club World Cup. What have you made of the tournament so far?
I've not been to any of the stadiums yet but I've been watching the matches of course. Obviously the standard is very high and the atmosphere is just brilliant. There have been some big crowds at the games, and I thought Urawa Reds did really well. I will be going to the final, though, and it's a match I can't wait to see.
Tell us a little more about your thoughts on Urawa Red Diamonds?
Well, they did an excellent job in the Asian Cup, which is how they got here in the first place. They played a great game against Sepahan, but then they came up against AC Milan in a very difficult match. I reckon they did what they could but obviously Milan had the edge in vital areas. All the same these kind of matches will help the team see what they need to do to develop and improve their game. That's why it's such an important competition.
Japan has hosted the competition for three years now. What do you think its impact will be on the future of Japanese football?
Huge. Apart from the 2002 World Cup, Japan has never staged major tournaments. But the old Toyota Cup and the Club World Cup are making all the difference. It's not the same watching these teams on TV as it is seeing them live, and now people can see what real football is all about. I'm not knocking the J-League, but the European teams and their players are at a different level. Giving people the chance to see them in the flesh will surely raise standards in the national league.
Japan have just appointed a new coach in Takeshi Okada. How well do you think he will fare?
I worked with him at the 1998 World Cup in France and I can safely say that he is a great coach and a wonderful person. I haven't seen him for the last eight or nine years, so I can't say what changes he has made to the way he works. But I'm sure he will reach a lot of the objectives he'll set for himself. I'm expecting big things of him.
One last question. The Preliminary Draw for South Africa 2010 was made in Durban at the end of last month? How do you rate Japan's chances of qualifying?
The same as always. The gap between teams is closing all the time of course and it's not easy to qualify these days. That said, Japan have got a great chance of reaching South Africa 2010 and I hope they can do it.