YOKOHAMA – On Tuesday afternoon, Yuji Nakazawa could never have imagined the events that would unfold over the course of the week.
Sitting down with The Japan Times at Yokohama F. Marinos’ clubhouse after a morning training session, the former national team captain and veteran of 354 J. League games outlined his ambitions for the season and his hopes for the future as his league-leading Marinos prepared for Saturday’s crucial visit to Kashiwa Reysol.
In the hours that followed, news began to filter through that Nakazawa’s former teammate Naoki Matsuda had collapsed in training with his JFL club Matsumoto Yamaga and was in critical condition in the hospital.
Two days later, Matsuda, who spent 16 seasons with Marinos before leaving the club at the end of last year, was pronounced dead at the age of 34.
Needless to say, the tragedy has deeply affected everyone connected with the Yokohama club, and Saturday’s match at Hitachi Stadium will be a raw emotional affair. On Tuesday afternoon, before the news broke, Nakazawa was in high spirits as he contemplated Marinos’ chances of a first J. League title since back-to-back triumphs under Takeshi Okada in 2003 and 2004.
“Reysol are second in the table, so if we want to win the title we can’t afford to lose this game on Saturday,” the 33-year-old defender said. “If we don’t win, it could make things very difficult for us.
“The team that won the league in 2003 and 2004 had a different manager and a different style of play, so you can’t really compare the team we have now to the team we had then. But one thing about the 2011 team is that we are better at set pieces.”
If current manager Kazushi Kimura has anything to do with it, silverware will be the common link that bridges the two eras. The former national team striker raised eyebrows with his preseason claim that Marinos were aiming for the championship — despite never having finished higher than seventh since their last title — but Nakazawa was not among the doubting voices.
“Every year my goal is to win the league, and to hear the manager stand up and announce that in front of everyone was a big boost for the team,” he said. “Around the time of the J. League starting and also before that, Kimura was a fantastic player for Nissan and the national team. But as a manager, when you speak to him he doesn’t have that superstar image. He’s very easy to communicate with.”
Having stayed with the club throughout the lean times, Nakazawa has more reason than most to be satisfied with this season’s encouraging form. Marinos went top of the table for the first time in five years after a 1-1 draw with Omiya Ardija last month, but Nakazawa insists the lack of trophies has never tempted him to look for greener pastures.
“If my contract runs out and I get what I consider to be a good offer from another club, it’s always something to think about,” he said. “But I’ve never wanted to leave Marinos just because we haven’t been able to compete for the title.
“As a professional you’re always open to hear what clubs who value you have to say. I’ve never had an offer that I consider to be better than what I’ve got here at Marinos. I’ve had plenty that have been worse though.”
But while Nakazawa continues to thrive at club level, his international career has come to a crossroads. The defender played an integral role as Japan reached the second round of the World Cup for the first time on foreign soil in South Africa last summer, but current manager Alberto Zaccheroni has yet to offer him the chance to add to his 110 caps.
“I haven’t retired — I’m just not needed because I’m a veteran,” Nakazawa said. “If Zaccheroni calls me up, then I’m ready any time. I have to play well for Marinos for that to happen, and if I’m called up I will be very happy.
“I want to play at the World Cup in Brazil. When I was younger I went to Brazil to study how to play football, so maybe more than any other Japanese player I want to be there.”
Nakazawa rates last summer’s World Cup as the greatest moment of his career so far, but it did not come without sacrifice. Manager Okada made a series of late changes as the team struggled for form going into the tournament, and Nakazawa found himself relieved of the captain’s armband with Makoto Hasebe taking over as skipper.
“If Hasebe taking over as captain was a good thing for the team then it wasn’t a problem for me,” Nakazawa said. “The captaincy wasn’t something that I desperately wanted to hang onto. If that was the manager’s decision, then that’s the way it was. I knew that as a veteran there were ways I could make myself useful.”
If he continues to follow his former manager’s advice, Nakazawa will still be making himself useful for a long time to come.
“Okada taught me how to live my life as a professional player,” he said. “In order to stay in good condition he taught me to eat well, get plenty of sleep and always give my all in training. There are times when you want to have fun, but if you want a long career you have to suppress that urge. When you retire, that’s the time to do that.”