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Japan coach Ivica Osim has left the national team door wide open for Hidetoshi Nakata should the superstar make a sensational return to professional soccer.

News photoJapan coach Ivica Osim speaks during a press conference held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Thursday.
KYODO PHOTO

Nakata announced he was quitting the game after Japan’s disappointing first-round exit at last year’s World Cup finals, but the 30-year-old recently laced up his boots for a charity match and is set to play in an exhibition tournament in Hong Kong in July.

Rumors are now swirling around that the veteran of Japan’s three World Cup campaigns is weighing up a stunning comeback — and Osim may have further piqued the ex-captain’s interest Thursday by dangling the carrot of leading the national team in its 2010 World Cup qualification games and onto a potential fourth finals appearance.

“Nakata is still young. If he started playing regularly again, either in Japan or for a European team, I’d say there would still be room for him on the national team,” Osim told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.

“It wouldn’t be because of his name he could come back to the national team it would be because of his qualities.

“The door opens and closes, it changes with time. For the future, the only thing I can do as the person who decides the makeup of the team is I could keep the door open.”

In Germany last year, Nakata cut a forlorn figure in the center circle in the aftermath of the 4-1 defeat by Brazil, the nail in the coffin for Japan’s World Cup campaign. Nakata later broke down in tears in the dressing room and announced soon afterward he was leaving the game at just 29.

Osim said he understood why Nakata, capped 77 times and the only player to appear in all 10 matches Japan has played in the World Cup finals, walked away when he did.

“Nakata was a star. And that’s what he makes a living at now, being a star. And that’s something he didn’t want to lose by playing too long. Why jeopardize that? He played in the World Cup. That’s the way I see it,” said the 66-year-old Bosnian coach.

“He played for Roma but then went on to less well-known clubs in Italy. After he went to England, he did the Japanese thing and stopped while still at a high level.”

Nakata made his first appearance since the Brazil game earlier in June in a charity match hosted by Luis Figo in Lisbon. He will also play for the FIFA World Stars in July in an exhibition tournament celebrating 10 years since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule.

But if Nakata decides against taking his return one step further, Osim believes he has the players with the potential to be better than the man considered Japan’s best-ever all-around player.

“I hope there will be better players than Nakata. If not, we can stop playing football altogether. It’s not that difficult to find better players. This is not only for him, take for example (Diego) Maradona. We always hope that better players will come. Nakata was not ideal. He had good points, bad points. If Nakata thinks no one can reach him, too bad. There will be better,” Osim said.

Nakata, a native of Yamanashi Prefecture, started his career in 1995 at J. League club Bellmare Hiratsuka before moving to Italian League club Perugia shortly after making his World Cup debut in the 1998 tournament in France.

He then made a big-money move to Roma before spells at Parma, Bologna and Fiorentina. He ended his club career at the end of a disappointing 2005-2006 season with Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League.

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