It’s been more than 11 years since Yuto Nagatomo stood behind a microphone at the center of the Ajinomoto Stadium pitch, whipped out a pair of black sunglasses — partly out of bravado, but also to hide tears that had started to well after his former Meiji University head coach had presented him with a ceremonial bouquet — and told FC Tokyo fans that this would not be the last time they saw him as he prepared to join Italy’s Cesena.
“This isn’t farewell,” he said on July 17, 2010. “I want to become the world’s best fullback and wear the blue and red uniform again.”
Nagatomo’s European journey may have begun in the small city less than 10 kilometers from the Adriatic Sea, but it continued on to Milan, Istanbul and finally Marseille, France, before he decided it was time to come home and make good on his promise.
He did so on Saturday to the delight of 4,368 fans who braved a downpour from what remained of Typhoon No. 14, playing a full 90 minutes in Tokyo’s 4-0 win over Yokohama FC.
“It felt electrifying to go out there as an FC Tokyo player again,” Nagatomo said. “During training I remembered the ambition I felt during my first time at the club, but it hit me even harder at Ajinomoto Stadium.
“I came into the game wanting to play as well as I did back in those days.”
Though he spent just 2½ years in Tokyo, Nagatomo is still considered one of its brightest stars, not only for what he did during his time in the capital but for having raised its international status through his efforts for both club and country.
Early in his rookie season, a starring role in the April 2008 Tokyo Derby — during which he crossed swords with future Brazil striker Hulk and created the game-winning goal — hinted at what was to come.
Nagatomo went on to make his national team debut that summer, and just two years later became the first FC Tokyo player to start at a World Cup. A month following that 1-0 win over Cameroon, he was headed for Serie A-bound Cesena on loan, where half a season was all he needed to earn a permanent transfer in January 2011.
But after helping Japan capture its fourth Asian Cup title in Qatar, Nagatomo’s destination upon returning to Italy was instead the famous San Siro after he became the first East Asian player to sign with Inter Milan.
Nagatomo’s seven seasons in blue and black produced only one trophy — the 2010-11 Copa Italia — and he played under 10 different managers in a period defined by turmoil and two sales of the club to new owners. Yet he was embraced for his work ethic on the pitch and his character off it.
“He became a cult figure among the fans and almost like the club’s mascot,” Italian soccer journalist and Sempre Inter founder Nima Tavallaey Roodsari told From the Spot. “His close friendships with Antonio Cassano and Wesley Sneijder in particular come to mind as big talking points back then, as they came across as the jokers of the team.
“He was very appreciated by everyone at the club for how he was as a person: funny, hard working and down to earth. Today when people remember him, they do so with a smile, as he had such a positive vibe around him.”
Even as Nagatomo began to show signs of slowing down in his last days at Inter — prompting a loan to Turkey’s Galatasaray that eventually became permanent — his role as mood-maker persevered. Before the 2018 World Cup he bleached his hair, telling Japanese media that he had tried to become a “Super Saiyan” (of “Dragon Ball” fame) but instead became a “super gorilla.”
Then after one last European season with France’s Marseille — alongside Samurai Blue teammate Hiroki Sakai, who also came back to the J. League this summer — Nagatomo was ready to return to the city where it all began, putting on the No. 50 shirt to represent his original No. 5 as well as a fresh start.
On Saturday, Nagatomo didn’t make the bombing runs up the left flank that were his trademark in his prime — instead marshaling his teammates from the back and working to shut down Yokohama FC’s attackers, aided in part by wet and windy conditions in Chofu.
“I was telling my teammates to focus on tactical details, raising our line, picking up second balls and just keeping everyone motivated,” Nagatomo said. “In our last game (a 1-0 loss to Kashiwa Reysol) we lacked confidence and passion, and I wanted to inspire everyone.”
With nine games left in the season and eight points separating Tokyo from third-place Nagoya Grampus, it’s not so unthinkable that Nagatomo could help inspire the team to what would be a fourth appearance in the Asian Champions League. There’s also the matter of the Levain Cup — where Tokyo will face Grampus in the semifinals — giving the team’s new defender a chance to once again lift the trophy he helped win in 2009.
For a team getting used to playing at home again after a nearly three-month absence caused by the Summer Games — and a fanbase that has withered due to attendance restrictions caused by the ongoing state of emergency in the Tokyo area — his arrival couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I think Nagatomo has helped the team understand the importance of passion,” Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa said after Saturday’s game.
“When we were in a bad situation, we didn’t have the kind of player who could lighten that mood. In that sense, having a player as bright as the sun come into the squad is a big thing for us.”
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