SHIZUOKA - Yoshihito Nakayama, locker room staffer for J-League first division side Shimizu S-Pulse, looks after not only the player’s gear, but sometimes their feelings, too.
Kohei Hattanda, a 23-year-old midfielder who joined S-Pulse last year, recalls Nakayama, 48, lifting his spirits after he suffered an injury.
“He talked to me when I was distressed . . . and we became friendly,” Hattanda said. “I fully trust Popo.”
Popo is Nakayama’s nickname, given because of his resemblance to a character of that name in the animated television series “Dragon Ball Z.”
Nakayama was born in the city of Shizuoka, the team’s base, and began playing soccer when he was a child. In high school, he was a member of the cheering squad for the soccer team, which competed at national events.
When S-Pulse was established in 1991, Nakayama was working at a local fishery products wholesaler. He was chosen to be the first leader of the fans’ cheering squad, and went to the games directly after the end of his shifts, which began at 2 a.m. and extended past noon.
“Hundreds of spectators cheered following my instructions,” Nakayama recalled. “I felt like I was an idol.”
He was so devoted to following the team that his supervisor one day told him to “choose between work and soccer.” Without hesitation, he chose soccer and decided to switch to work on an irregular basis. He was then 28.
While leading the cheering squad for S-Pulse, Nakayama helped team members with various tasks on an unpaid basis. Recognizing that he had no regular job, the club offered him a full-time position in 1995. He started out managing the clubhouse and was assigned three years later to the locker room, taking care of the players’ gear.
Nakayama was initially afraid of handling the shoes and other gear so important to the team, but he got help from other people in the same field, and gradually improved through trial and error.
Nakayama begins his game preparations three hours before the players arrive at the stadium, setting out their shoes, jerseys and shorts in the locker room. He can rarely watch games because he has so many things to do, such as preparing extra jerseys and towels, and sweeping the locker room.
“It’s important for me to create an environment in which players can feel free to ask me to do things for them,” Nakayama said, explaining he tries to get an understanding of each player’s demeanor.
Nakayama’s approach paid off particularly well with Ahn Jung Hwan, a former member of the South Korean national team who played for S-Pulse in the early 2000s and starred in the World Cup.
Ahn was very shy and did not let Nakayama touch his shoes. But Nakayama kept trying to communicate with him and the South Korean soccer star eventually asked him to choose his shoes before games.
When S-Pulse was in a slump early this season, Nakayama began singing a supporters’ song in front of the players, who then joined in with him and started dancing in the locker room after the game.
The atmosphere of the team has since improved.
Nakayama has worked for S-Pulse for 15 years. “I guess I like my work as I have kept doing it, albeit complaining from time to time,” he said, revealing his own streak of shyness.