Kawasaki Frontale midfielder Kengo Nakamura announced his intention to retire on Sunday, bringing an end to a spectacular 18-year career for one of Japanese soccer’s most storied players.
The announcement came just a day after Nakamura’s 40th birthday, during which he scored the game-winning goal against FC Tokyo to extend Frontale’s record winning streak to 12 games and push the Todoroki Stadium residents a step closer to their third J. League first-division title.
In an online news conference, Nakamura revealed that he had first considered a timeline for retirement in 2010, then again revisited the idea in 2015 after his 35th birthday.
“Around 33 or 34, I didn’t feel like I was ready to retire at 35,” Nakamura said. “When I turned 35, I discussed going until 40 with my wife.
“There aren’t many players who are still active at 40 years old. I wanted to mark the end then, and in any case do my best in each of those five years.”
As one of Japan’s declining number of “one-club men,” Nakamura has called Frontale home since 2003 after graduating from Chuo University. Starting in 2006 he was selected to five straight J. League Best XI squads, a period in which Frontale finished runner-up three times in the J1 and twice in the J. League Cup.
Nakamura continued to pilot the side through the turbulent early 2010s — including the team’s worst single-stage finish of 11th in 2011 — and was named the league’s most valuable player in 2016 after Frontale finished second in the regular-season standings.
Considered at the time to be among the best J. League players never to have won a league title, Nakamura’s chance finally came in 2017 when Frontale dramatically clinched first place above the Kashima Antlers on the final day of the J1 season in front of a rapturous Todoroki crowd. One year later and Nakamura got his second medal, this one with two rounds left to spare as Kawasaki flew past a sputtering Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
“After my 35th birthday when I made the decision (to retire at 40), I won the MVP at 36, our first league title at 37, another title at 38, and last year we won the Levain Cup. We were just winning an unbelievable number of titles,” Nakamura said.
“Soon after the Levain Cup was my 39th birthday, and in our next game (on Nov. 2) I tore my ACL. I had set my limit (for retirement), so I wanted to come back, show everyone I could still play, and retire. I was even more motivated to endure a difficult rehabilitation process and play in front of everyone as soon as possible.”
The former captain has made a considerable impact in his five appearances this season, scoring off the bench in his Aug. 29 return to play against Shimizu S-Pulse before netting two assists in the team’s Oct. 18 victory over Nagoya Grampus, which set a new J. League record for consecutive wins in a single season.
In light of the announcement, Saturday’s goal against FC Tokyo could be seen even more as a passing of the torch, with the assist having come from Frontale’s rookie standout Kaoru Mitoma.
“Watching this team perform as I’ve rehabbed, there’s reliability, there’s toughness. They’ve shown that without me they can still get good results,” Nakamura said.
“Rehabbing and rejoining practice wasn’t enough for me to get back on the pitch. Getting over that hurdle is one of the biggest accomplishments of my career, and I’m grateful to our younger players as well as (manager Toru) Oniki for using me.”
Despite racking up 68 caps for Japan including six goals, Nakamura was rarely given the chance to shine in front of global audiences, appearing in the Samurai Blue’s 2007 Asian Cup campaign and coming on once as a substitute in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
But his selfless play, humble demeanor and loyalty to Kawasaki endeared him to J. League fans across the country, even those whose teams fell victim to one of his laser-targeted spot kicks or clever passes.
“I’m a Frontale man, But the J. League helped raise me, and I don’t believe there’s as good a league anywhere in the world and that’s something to be proud of,” Nakamura said.
“I was able to get to where I am because of the support of the Japanese soccer family and I hope I can continue to contribute to Japanese soccer.”
Nakamura said he decided to announce his decision on Sunday, rather than at the end of the season, on the advice of his teammates and others at the club.
“We have two more months together. I don’t want to waste them, I want to enjoy them. I want to win the title with everyone,” Nakamura said. “I’m retiring, but the competition is just beginning. I want to play, I want to help Frontale improve, and I want to contribute to that.
“I feel strong about wanting to win the title, and I want to understand what my role within the team is and keep working hard.”
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