Anyone following the saga of quarterback Brett Favre could be forgiven for thinking that athletes care little for their legacy, but not all sportsmen are prepared to gamble with their reputation.
When Celtic kicks off its Scottish Premier League opener against St. Mirren on Sunday, Shunsuke Nakamura will embark on his fourth season with the Glasgow giant.
It is a period that has been hugely successful for the 30-year-old playmaker, yielding medals for three league titles, one Scottish Cup and one League Cup, as well as both the Scottish Players’ and Writers’ Player of the Year awards for 2007.
Nakamura has also been able to strut his stuff on the biggest stage, etching his name on Europe-wide consciousness with a series of fine performances in the Champions League and two stunning free-kick goals against Manchester United.
That he has done so well has come as something of a shock to observers in both Scotland and Japan, with few expecting such a technical player to thrive in the take-no-prisoners battleground of the SPL.
Celtic fans who had seen the slightly-built Eyal Berkovic and Juninho wither in the Parkhead spotlight held out little hope that their new Japanese signing from Reggina would fare better. But Nakamura has proved he is made of sterner stuff.
Honoring his promise to join Celtic in the wake of its Champions League preliminary-round humiliation at the hands of Artmedia Bratislava in 2005 — despite not having already signed the contract — gave an early indication of Nakamura’s attitude and resolve. Manager Gordon Strachan has been reaping the benefits ever since.
But perhaps an even bigger surprise than Nakamura’s success at Celtic is the fact that he is still at the club at all.
The general consensus in Scotland after Nakamura’s debut season was that he would leave the following summer, and there were no shortage of suitors ready to make him an offer.
The player himself had spoken of his desire to play in Spain, and several Spanish and English clubs registered their interest.
But at the end of the 2006-2007 season, about to turn 29 and with his stock at an all-time high, Nakamura pledged his future to Celtic, effectively ruling out a transfer to another European club once and for all.
At first glance, the decision suggested a lack of ambition.
Celtic regularly participates in the Champions League, but while the SPL is better than it is often given credit for, the standard cannot compare to the Spanish and English leagues.
Nakamura looked to be throwing away his chance to establish himself among Europe’s true heavyweights, preferring instead to remain in more tranquil backwaters as a big fish in a small pond.
Before rushing to judgment, however, it is worth considering just what he would have given up were he to leave the club that has given him such a sturdy platform to flourish.
Nakamura’s failure to make an impact in Italy stemmed from both the defensive work he was obliged to do as part of a team always struggling against stronger sides, and the close physical attention he received in a country where man-marking takes on a far more literal meaning.
At Celtic he has been liberated from these shackles. As a member of one of the league’s two big clubs, Nakamura need never worry about being sent onto the pitch with instructions to forsake playmaking duties for defending.
His freedom has also been safeguarded by his teammates. Neil Lennon’s tireless ball-winning helped Nakamura adapt to the Scottish game seamlessly, and the subsequent presence of Roy Keane, Thomas Gravesen and Scott Brown maintained this protection.
Nakamura has a manager who understands his needs and is unstinting in his praise, and an audience that worships every flick of his boot.
Although Nakamura does not possess the type of high-maintenance ego that needs to consume such fuel to survive, it must be nice for him all the same. With such a system in place, with everything geared toward making the most of his creative talents, it is little wonder he decided against the risk of moving to a bigger league.
The season about to begin will probably be Nakamura’s last in Scotland, and a return to the J. League with Yokohama F. Marinos next summer looks likely. When the time to leave comes, he will be able to look back on his career in Europe with satisfaction.
Nakamura’s place among Japan’s great players is assured, but with another campaign gearing up in Glasgow, don’t be surprised if he adds one final chapter to the record books.
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