From the copper-haired prospect of World Cup ’98 to Serie A champion and Coppa Italia hero, Hidetoshi Nakata is widely considered the greatest Japanese player of all time. And his sense of style went far beyond the realm of football.
When Nakata first came onto the scene in the mid-nineties, Japanese football was still in its infancy. While Japan had a rich amateur tradition, the J League – its first professional domestic competition – was only formed in 1992.
In an interview with FIFA TV, Nakata admitted he had no real idols in the game growing up, because so few famous players had gone before him.
As such, he was a pioneer, a trailblazer; he was the idol of Japanese football, and one of the first to set out on the path to greatness over the ocean and far away.
Instead of being inspired by a particular match or a standout player, Nakata has stated that one of his big early influences was the anime and manga series Captain Tsubasa, a cartoon which originally ran in the eighties – along with an accompanying comic book – about a boy named Tsubasa Oozora who has phenomenal talent and dreams of winning the World Cup for Japan.
Even from an early age, then, Nakata looked at the beautiful game differently to the European players he would later call his team-mates.
To him, football was quite literally an art form: the bold lines of manga illustration, the cinematography of anime and the outlandish narratives of pre-teen television, as opposed to stifling tactical pragmatism and muddy fields on a winter day.
Having made his name as a technically-gifted midfielder and mercurial goalscorer with Bellmare Hiratsuka – the club’s name is partly derived from the Italian bello and mare (“beautiful sea”), which seems apt given Nakata’s career trajectory – the man who would come to be known as Gioiellino (or “Little Jewel”) sparkled brightest at the 1998 World Cup.
Recognisable for his copper-bronze hair and a silky touch which was supposedly intended to attract the attention of European scouts, he impressed despite Japan losing all three of their group stage matches, holding his own in their games against Argentina and Croatia even as his compatriots were outclassed.
His hairstyle and his football had the desired effect, and he earned a move to Perugia not long afterwards. He was also named Asian Footballer of the Year for the second consecutive season, even if he hadn’t quite lifted the World Cup and made Tsubasa Oozora’s dreams come true.
So it was that Nakata crossed the beautiful seas and ended up in faraway Italy, playing in what was then generally agreed to be the greatest league on earth.
In Captain Tsubasa, the titular hero’s father is a marine captain who travels the world, another way in which Nakata’s career – and 6,000-mile journey from Japan to Italy – echoed his favourite cartoon.
He became only the second Japanese player after Kazuyoshi Miura to play in Italy, with Miura spending a single season on loan at Genoa three years previous.
Though Nakata was not the most complete midfielder of the era and often played in fits and starts in Italy, he captured the hearts of tens of thousands of fans. With an eye for a crucial goal and a penchant for the dramatic, his approach to the game made even some of the storylines in Captain Tsubasa look tame.
Having spent two seasons with Perugia in which he helped them consolidate a place in the mid table – scoring 14 goals in the process – his cultured approach drew covetous glances from some of the biggest teams in Italy.
In the end it was Roma who snapped him up for just over €21million, a substantial sum which he would make worthwhile with one absolutely priceless goal.
When Nakata arrived at Roma he was faced with the usual parochial accusations levelled at Asian players, namely that he was mainly there so the club could sell shirts and expand into lucrative new markets.
However, while he struggled to nail down a starting spot with the Giallorossi, he silenced the naysayers at least once with a momentous strike against Juventus.
Late on in his second season at Roma – with the team on a middling run and whispers that they could drop off the top of the table – Nakata came on for Francesco Totti with the side trailing 2-0 to Juve at the Stadio delle Alpi.
Soon enough he had scored one of the goals of the season, lofting a shot past Edwin van der Sar from 25 yards and leaving the net bulging behind the Dutchman.
Laying on the equaliser for Vincenzo Montella after Van der Sar could only parry another of his long-range efforts, Nakata played a pivotal role in what was a vital game for Fabio Capello’s men.
Roma would go unbeaten for the rest of the season, winning their first Scudetto for 18 years.
If Nakata had made an indispensable contribution to their title triumph, he would do the same the following season for Parma in the Coppa Italia.
Having joined the Crociati at the end of the 2000-01 campaign for around €28million – a record fee for an Asian player which would not be broken until Son Heung-min’s €30million move from Bayer Leverkusen to Tottenham in 2015 – he scored the away goal which decided the two-legged 2002 cup final in Parma’s favour.
While Nakata would suffer with nagging injuries throughout his two and a half seasons with Parma – nonetheless making 95 appearances for the club and helping to make them a European mainstay – he already had an air of myth and legend.
There were certainly lows in his career, not least when Japan were outdone by co-hosts South Korea at the 2002 World Cup, and his last few years in club football were tinged with disappointment, an itinerant life seeing him jump between Bologna, Fiorentina and Bolton Wanderers on loan.
However, his personal legend only grew when he announced his retirement at the age of 29, saying afterwards: “I could feel that [we] were playing just for money and not for the sake of having fun. I always felt that a team was like a big family, but it stopped being like that.”
He ended his playing days a minor deity in Japan and much-lauded by former fans in Italy, with Serie A perhaps not quite appreciating Nakata fully until he was gone.
From the moment he turned out at the World Cup with his shimmering bronze hair, it was clear Nakata’s sense of style went far beyond football.
Known to attend catwalks and exhibitions during his playing days, his credentials as a fashionista seemed to make his transition into modelling a natural next step in his career.
However, though he’s still as sartorial as ever, Nakata didn’t make a permanent home in the world of fashion, instead deciding to travel the globe and all the prefectures of Japan so that he could learn about culture away from fame and football.
Just like the adventures of Captain Tsubasa, Nakata’s journey across the world continues.
But he will always be remembered as one of the greatest Japanese players to have graced the game.
By Will Magee