2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™

2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™

9 June - 9 July

2006 FIFA World Cup™

Nakata bows out at the top

On 3 July, Japan international Hidetoshi Nakata brought down the curtain on his ten-year career as a professional footballer – a decade in which he had served as a dynamic and pioneering force not just for Japan, but for the whole of Asian football.

The announcement came on his official website , in an article titled "To live is to journey, and to journey is to live". The 29-year-old midfielder wrote: "About six months ago, I decided to end my ten-year career in professional football, making the World Cup in Germany my final event before retiring."

Go to the Brazil-Japan match page

Born in 1977, Nakata was clearly a cut above the rest even at an early age, and he represented Japan at every age level. Nakata burst onto the global stage at the 1993 FIFA U-17 World Championship, before signing professionally in the domestic J-League in 1995. The following year, aged 19, he was a key player for Japan at the Olympic Football Tournament in Atlanta, the first Olympic Games that Japan had qualified for in 28 years, helping the Blues beat Brazil 1-0 in the group phase.

By the time the qualifiers for the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ came around, Nakata was a fixture in the full national side. France 98 was the first time Japan had competed on world football's biggest stage, and would be the first of three consecutive finals for the midfield maestro. Japan have played a total of ten FIFA World Cup matches, spanning France 98, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006, and the former Fiorentina and AS Roma man is the only footballer to have played in every one of those games.

At Korea/Japan 2002, with Nakata in fine form in the hole behind the forwards, Japan recorded their first ever victory in the competition, before making it through to the Round of 16 for the first time. Upon his retirement, Nakata had played a total 77 games for his country, scoring 11 goals.

Nakata's silky skills saw him become one of the most successful Asian players ever to play in Europe. In 1998 he moved to Perugia, then in Italy's Serie A, making an immediate impact with ten goals in his first season. His impressive club form continued at Roma, where he worked his magic alongside the likes of Francesco Totti and Gabriel Batistuta as the Giallorossi stormed to the league title. The gifted creator's Italian adventure also took in spells at Parma, Bologna and Fiorentina, and his final season in the professional game was spent in the English Premiership with Bolton Wanderers.

It would be Japan's third group game at Germany 2006 that proved to be Nakata's sayonara to the national team. Fittingly, the opponents on 22 June were Carlos Alberto Parreira's star-studded Brazil side. Unfortunately for the departing hero, the Seleção showed no mercy, thumping Japan 4-1 and destroying their slim hopes of reaching the Round of 16. After the final whistle, Nakata lay in the centre circle sobbing and exhausted.

On the surface, the well-travelled midfielder had always cultivated a very sophisticated image, and is fluent in a number of languages including Italian, English, Spanish and Portuguese. Nakata also enjoyed a number of business interests, including a role as a chief branding officer for a confectionary company. Clearly an intelligent and sensitive man, it appears that the pressure-cooker atmosphere surrounding the world's most-popular sport eventually took its toll.

"After turning professional," he wrote on his website, "when asked if I liked football, I found that I was no longer able to give the straight answer 'Yes, I love it!' that I would have given before. While I was very much aware of the great honour and responsibility involved in what I was doing, I had somehow lost the simple unspoilt passion for the ball that I had felt so strongly as a child.

"But after the final whistle of our game against Brazil on 22 June, the match that would be my last as a professional, I rediscovered a part of myself that always has and always will truly love football. On the pitch, I experienced an overwhelming wave of emotion - something far greater than I had been aware of myself.

"I can see now that it was something that I had kept tucked away deep inside me, my real passion for football that I didn't want to become tarnished. Over the years, I had built up a thick wall to protect those feelings.

"In order to protect myself from certain situations, I would at times act completely cold and without emotion. But at the very end, the wall gave way, and my feelings showed themselves."

He continues: "To think that I would be leaving the national team, and football, without having managed to leave anything behind, was really hard on me. But I believe that all those who have made the effort to understand me, will be there to support the new national team. That is why I am now able to set out on a new journey with no regrets."

Zico, the man who coached Japan at Germany 2006, had this to say about Nakata on his own official website: "There is no doubt that losing a player of his quality will be a big loss for Japanese football. I really believe that he's capable of playing for several more years yet, but I understand that his decision is very personal and that should always be respected. I will continue to support him and pray for his continued success."

Reports claim that Nakata has already purchased a building in New York and plans to study business at a university in the United States, a fitting starting point for the new journey of perhaps the finest Asian footballer of his generation.