When Hidetoshi Nakata announced his retirement on his Web site July 3, it shocked the soccer world.
After all, he was only 29 years old, had recently won a FIFA Man of the Match award at the World Cup, against Croatia, and still had several seasons left in him as a professional.
At the same time, though, for everyone who has followed his career closely, it was typical Nakata behavior: Totally unexpected, but, after it had sunk in, completely predictable.
Nakata, as has been clear for many years, has never been one to follow the rules. He is his own man, and goes his own way, with his priority to be honest to himself rather than to the masses around him.
It is an attitude that has brought him considerable wealth and made him a national icon for millions of youngsters in Japan, but at the same time has alienated him from the more traditional and conservative sections of society.
Ask a typical Japanese soccer fan to describe Nakata and they will say “honest, independent, confident in himself and never one to make excuses” (as opposed to Zico, who would easily reach the semifinals of the Excuses World Cup).
Unlike players who grow up dreaming of being a professional soccer player, captaining his country and playing at the World Cup, Nakata could always distinguish between the game and life itself.
During the World Cup in Germany, for example, Nakata was asked if he thought Japan’s second match against Croatia was a “do or die” affair after the collapse against Australia.
“Why do we have to die?” he replied.
To him it was another match, an important one, and he would try to do his best to win, as simple as that.
He has never suggested, in word or deed, that the game was everything to him. During an interview in the spring of 1998, when he was still with Bellmare Hiratsuka, he admitted he had no special feeling about being a professional soccer player.
“It could have been something else,” he said, “like playing the piano.”
He always gave the impression he could walk away from the game at any time and not look back, as he had a much bigger agenda mapped out in his life.
In this aspect, he is at the opposite end of the scale to Kazuyoshi Miura, Japan’s first true soccer superstar who is still playing at 39 years old, for Yokohama FC in the second division, and still loving every minute of it.
Nakata’s aloof, distant approach often gave the impression that he was in the wrong business, a business which FIFA president Sepp Blatter never hesitates to describe as all about “passion and emotion.”
Ossie Ardiles, from a country, Argentina, where the passion and emotion for the game is greater than most, was once asked who he would have as Japan’s captain. It was at the time Ardiles was coaching in the J. League, and when national coach Philippe Troussier was changing Japan’s captain match by match.
“I’d pick Nakata,” said Ardiles, “because he has the respect of the other players.
“But . . . sometimes I’m not sure if he cares enough. That’s the only problem.”
Nakata certainly gave that impression on occasions, and could give the ball away with an alarmingly casual pass just as easily as he could prise open a defense with a rapier through-ball no one else had seen.
On another occasion, Troussier, in a typically animated outburst, described him as a “businessman, not a footballer,” because of the entourage that accompanied him.
Later, after Nakata had had an outstanding game in a 2-0 win in Poland in the buildup to the 2002 World Cup, the Frenchman said he detected a change in his attitude.
“Before, Nakata come with his manager, his agent, his hairdresser, in his helicopter. Today he come on his bicycle,” said Troussier, getting his tenses mixed up but certainly not his message.
Nakata did care, even if he did not show it, and finally the Ice Man Melteth after Japan’s 4-1 defeat by Brazil in what would be his last competitive game.
When the final whistle blew on Japan’s calamitous World Cup campaign, he exchanged shirts with a Brazilian rival before sitting down on the pitch, fiddling with his boot laces. Then he laid on his back in the center circle, put the canary yellow shirt over his face, and stayed there for 10 minutes.
Japan’s captain, and Nakata’s closest (maybe only) friend on the national squad, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, went over to check he was OK, as did Brazilian striker Adriano, who had once formed a lethal three-man attack for Parma alongside Nakata and the Romanian Adrian Mutu.
Nakata finally got to his feet and went over to applaud the thousands of Japanese fans who had stayed in the stadium in Dortmund. He was “doing a Gazza” — crying his eyes out after being eliminated at the World Cup — but, as it turned out, in very different circumstances.
“On the pitch I experienced an overwhelming wave of emotion, something far greater than I had been aware of myself,” he said in his retirement announcement on nakata.net.
“I can see now that it was something that I had kept tucked away deep inside me, my true passion for football that I didn’t want to become tarnished. Over the years I had created a thick wall to protect those feelings,” he continued.
“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.”
For those who lingered in the stadium on the night of June 22, long after the final whistle, they could not quite believe what they were seeing, and then all became clear on July 3.
Armed with his fame, his fortune and his fashion, plus his fluent English and Italian, Hidetoshi Nakata is heading out on a new campaign, with goals far removed from the roar of the crowd and the lush grass beneath his feet.
He will regard it as a career ending, but a life just beginning.