From Nakata to Nagatomo: Japanese footballers in Serie A, Part.II

Nakamura

With Asian Cup winner Yuto Nagatomo moving to European champions Inter in January we’re taking a special look back at the history of Japanese footballers in Serie A on Just Football in a two-part special feature. Click here for Part I. Now for Part II:

Shunsuke

Another attacking midfielder usually deployed in a wide position, Shunsuke Nakamura is well renowned in the British Isles for his time with Celtic, Manchester United fans learning of his deadliness from set pieces and remarkable left foot first hand. However, it is with Italian side Reggina that he took his first steps in the European game.

Reggina initially signed Nakamura on a six month loan deal from his hometown club Yokohama Marinos in the summer of 2002 hoping that he could provide the attacking impetus which would preserve their newly attained Serie A status.

A great success commercially, then club President Lillo Foti announced that 25,000 Reggina shirts bearing Nakamura’s name had been sold in Japan that summer. On the pitch Nakamura managed to score five goals in his first 16 games for the club, this return earning the number 10 a permanent deal in January 2003.

Ending the 2002/03 season as the club’s joint top scorer in Serie A with 7 goals (also scoring 1 in the Coppa Italia), Nakamura also provided a number of assists leading the club to a 14th place league finish.

The following season did not lead to as many headlines for Nakamura, with injury limiting the playmaker to just 18 appearances and 2 goals in all competitions. Despite this Reggina matched the previous season’s feat by again finishing 14th.

Reggina installed new manager Walter Mazzarri for the 2004/05 season with an aim to establishing themselves in Serie A, which ultimately worked, with the club finishing the season in 13th place. However at the end of the season after three years with the club Nakamura moved on to pastures new, with Celtic his chosen destination.

Despite not reaching the same level as Hidetoshi Nakata in Serie A, Nakamura can still look back on his spell in Italy as a personal success. With his time at Reggina coming to a close there were a number of top European clubs reputedly interested in securing the players’ services, which is a huge compliment in itself.

Other trailblazers

The following year two Japanese players tried their luck in Serie A. The first was hard-tackling midfielder Mitsuo Ogasawara who joined Messina, the side having maintained its place in Serie A due to Juventus being demoted as a result of the Italian match fixing scandal of 2006.

Signing on loan for the 2006/07 season Ogasawara went on to make six Serie A appearances, scoring one goal, whilst also making two appearances in the Coppa Italia. Ogasawara only donned the number 16 of Messina for one season before returning to parent club Kashima Antlers, where he still remains.

The other player to move to Serie A for the 2006/07 season was Japanese striker Masashi Oguro. Signing for Torino in August 2006 from French Ligue 2 side Grenoble Foot 38 for an undisclosed fee, Oguro’s stay in Italy was to last one season longer than Ogasawara’s.

An exciting time for the Turin side, promoted to Serie A for the 2006/07 season they also moved in to Stadio Olimpico Di Torino having previously ground shared with rivals Juventus between 1990 and 2006. Finishing 16th in the top flight to maintain Serie A status for the following season, Oguro only managed to make 7 appearances in the number 16 shirt handed to him.

Torino improved upon their finishing league position in 2007/08 by one place, ending the season in 15th, however Oguro again struggled to impose himself on the first team, this time making only 3 appearances for the side. Having made a total of ten appearances without scoring Oguro joined Tokyo Verdy in the 2008 off season.

These two players arrived the season after Japanese striker Atsushi Yanagisawa departed Serie A. Originally arriving in Italy with Sampdoria for the 2003/04 season, following the club’s promotion from Serie B, Yanagisawa wore the number 13 for the Genoese side on 15 occasions in Serie A (with 3 appearances in the Coppa Italia) without scoring any goals.

Sampdoria did not take up the option to sign the striker on a permanent deal and therefore Yanagisawa signed on loan for Serie A rivals Messina in 2004. Despite making 22 Serie A appearances in his maiden season with the club, Yanagisawa was unable to break his goal scoring duck in the league. He did however score one goal from four appearances in the Coppa Italia (his goal coming in a 4-0 first round victory over Acireale).

Signed by Messina on a permanent (three year) contract at the beginning of the 2005/06 season, the first 26 Serie A matches saw Yanagisawa make only seven appearances, all of which came as a substitute. With it being a World Cup year Yanagisawa was keen to obtain more playing time in order to be called up by Japan, and with this in mind he returned to former club Kashima Antlers on a six month loan deal in February 2006. The player did indeed earn a call up to the Japan 2006 World Cup squad and is still playing in the J-League today (now with Vegalta Sendai).

The final player making up this nine man list is left-footed central midfielder Hiroshi Nanami, who joined Venezia on loan for the 1999/00 season. Despite the language barrier and differing style of play in Italy (factors with which the player struggled), he still made 24 appearances in Serie A, scoring one goal. The skilful midfielder also scored one goal in that season’s Coppa Italia which saw Venezia reach the semi final stage before defeat to Lazio.

Playing in Serie A at the same time as Hidetoshi Nakata, his time in Italy was eclipsed by his younger compatriot. With Venezia finishing in 16th place, meaning relegation to Serie B, Nanami returned to Japan at the end of the 2000 season.

By signing with an illustrious club such as Inter Milan Yuto Nagatomo has already gone someway to matching (if not superseding) many of his compatriots on this list in terms of success in Serie A. He, and indeed Morimoto will hope to build on their appearances in Serie A whilst also establishing themselves as household names in European football, which is now so popular in Asia.

It goes without saying that if they can achieve these feats then a lasting dynasty with the Japanese national side will follow hand in hand.

Adam Cobley is a new contributor to Just Football and can be found at his own blog It began in 1992.

(picture via tpower1978 on Flickr)

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