Hidetoshi Nakata: Serie A Cult Hero and Japanese Trailblazer
Hidetoshi Nakata was much more than a hipster’s dream. As Italian football expert Chloe Beresford explains, the midfielder was a fashion icon, Serie A star, and the toast of Japanese football.
Let’s start this article with a quiz question. Who am I?
I’m a footballer that’s played in both the Premier League and Serie A and represented my country at three separate World Cups. I had bags of technical ability and vision, was named as one of the top 100 footballers of all time by Pele, and I’m on FIFA as an icon in Ultimate Team. I’ve also been heavily involved in the fashion world, described as a ‘trendsetter’ by some.
Answer: David Beckham? You would be forgiven for thinking so.
No, this is Hidetoshi Nakata. A midfielder who completely changed the game of football in Japan through his own cult status, finding success during a seven-season stint in Italy and one in England before retiring at the age of 29.
“Nakata was the country's first ‘Mr. Worldwide’, in a way. He was unlike any player Japan had seen before and he was getting it done in Italy.”
“What makes him so important to Japanese football is the attitude he brought as a player – not only going to Italy and becoming a success, but just in how he conducted himself,” says Dan Orlowitz, Sports Writer and Editor for the Japan Times.
“The fashion, the hair, the look. You've probably seen him referred to as ‘the David Beckham of Asia’, and it's not as hyperbolic a comparison as you'd think – all that was missing was the tattoos.
“Japan already had Kazuyoshi Miura, who sort of broke the mould in the ‘90s with his flair, fashion and nude photo books, but Nakata was the country's first ‘Mr. Worldwide’, in a way. He was unlike any player Japan had seen before and he was getting it done in Italy.”
It certainly sounds like the midfielder was riding the waves of his fame and success, but his sudden retirement proves that he wasn’t a man that could be categorised or simply placed in a box.
“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 retirement,” the player wrote on his personal website back in 2006.
“There was no one particular event that triggered this. And there is no single reason behind my decision. But what I can say now is that I felt that it was time for me to graduate from the journey of professional football, and set out on a new journey.
“I am someone who has always held my head up high, and I will continue to live like that, even after stepping away from professional football. The strength to do this comes from all of the support I have had over the years.
“And whatever the future holds, I know I will never lose that pride, because all of your voices will be with me, in my heart. A new journey is about to begin.”
At the time, Nakata was playing in the Premier League for Bolton Wanderers, and showed no desire to merely see out his contract as so many others in the game have done. “He told Bolton that he didn't need the money and they could cancel his contract,” Orlowitz continued. “Just like that.”
Starting at the end of his story, we can see that this was no ordinary footballer. His relationship with the sport just one aspect of a life with many passions. While many struggle to let go after retirement, Nakata said his goodbyes willingly.
“Since he retired, he's done a lot of charity and NPO work, he's traveled the world, started a bunch of businesses, including more recently a sake brewery and an app to educate the public about sake,” says Orlowitz. “He doesn't like to talk about his career as a player when he does media appearances.”
Yet this was not because his football career was a disappointment – in fact, it was quite the opposite.
It was at the World Cup in France during the summer of 1998 that Nakata first stood out. Not only had he dyed his hair bright red, but he’d scored five goals during qualification as Japan made it to the tournament itself.
Japan ultimately lost each one of their group stage matches, versus Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica, but Nakata was about to leave his native country to play domestic football in Italy.
“My feeling is that he is so well loved because he still represents a glorious era, maybe the last years of our glory days.”
Newly-promoted Perugia were the team to take a chance on the 21-year-old. The Italian club owner’s son, Antonio Gaucci, signed Nakata from Bellmare Hiratsuka in the J1 league. According to reports at the time, many in Serie A scoffed at the capture of the Japanese player, who was only the second of his nationality to play in the Italian top flight.
Yet Perugia's decision paid off immediately as the midfielder fired in twice on his debut against a Juventus side who’d won the league and reached the Champions League final the season the season before. Perugia lost 3-4 that day, but they took solace in the fact they’d discovered a very special player.
“We were smart but also lucky in our purchase of Nakata." admitted Gaucci. "Frankly, we've discovered that he's even better than we thought. But I can tell you this, he's not for sale.”
Indeed, they did manage to hold on to their player for the rest of that season – where he scored 10 goals in 33 appearances, also bagging four in 22 in the first half of the 99/00 campaign – before AS Roma came knocking that January.
The Giallorossi were strengthening their side, paying over €36 million for Gabriel Batistuta the following summer as they, along with talented existing stars such as Francesco Totti and Vincenzo Montella, made a push for the Scudetto.
Nakata made 15 starts that season, often used by coach Fabio Capello as an impact sub. “Honestly, he was pretty important in my opinion,” John Solano of RomaPress tells COPA90. “From the bench, Capello didn’t have many top-level options that you’d expect for a side competing for the title. Nakata was one of the few names he could rely on as a substitute.
“I don’t want to call him a cult icon, but he’s still revered pretty heavily at Roma.” The Japanese midfielder scored three goals as Roma went on to lift the trophy that season, the most crucial of which came when he fired past Juventus away.
The Old Lady had raced into a two-goal lead thanks to strikes from Alessandro del Piero and Zinedine Zidane…that was until Nakata picked up the ball in midfield and unleashed a 30-yard shot that left home supporters incredulous as it found the back of the net.
With less than five minutes to go, Nakata was to be the driving force once again, as another shot from distance was saved by Edwin van Der Sar, only for Montella’s striking instinct to kick-in as he netted the rebound. That result left Roma six points clear at the top of the table and on course for the title, a feat they’ve failed to manage since.
After that glorious year, the midfielder was on the move again, this time to Parma. This would be his longest single spell with any club, and he certainly left his mark on the Ducali’s supporters. “My feeling is that he is so well loved because he still represents a glorious era, maybe the last years of our glory days…,” Parma Fans Worldwide founder, Giorgio Martini revealed.
“I was young, but I do remember he was handed lots of responsibility. He arrived after winning the Scudetto and there was lots of expectation on him. I guess ALL the Parma fans in Japan started following the club because of him. Probably some of the fanbase in Asia has roots in that transfer too.
“On Twitter there is a fan account for Japanese supporters and we also have a group on Facebook just for them. In my official fan club I have a couple of Japanese fans and they are trying to set up on their own.”
His popularity in Japan cannot be underestimated, as Japanese Parma fans explain. “He’s a really important player in Japanese football, a legend,” said one. “I became a Parma supporter because of him,” admitted another.
“I still support them now, even though he’s gone. He was important because Japanese players used to play only for business, but since they have played due to their own potential. I have been twice to watch Parma play live.”
Following 68 appearances for the Ducali, Nakata moved on to a loan spell at Bologna, then a one-year stint at Fiorentina, before moving to Bolton in the Premier League where he spent once season before announcing his early retirement.
Both in Japan and Italy, Nakata showed he truly possessed the attitude and ability of a superstar player; his rare talent and personality standing out above the rest.
The fact Nakata appeared in Nike’s legendary ‘Secret Tournament’ advert around the time of the 2002 World Cup, alongside Luis Figo, Thierry Henry, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho, perfectly illustrates everything you need to know about his status in the game at the time.
His legacy very clearly lives on in those who followed him, and in his desire to discover life away from the world of football. Roma supporters may be reluctant to use the words ‘cult hero’, but in truth that’s exactly what he is.
Hidetoshi Nakata may not actually be David Beckham, but in Japan, he really may as well have been.
Follow Chloe on Twitter @ChloeJBeresford