Yuto Nagatomo’s transfer to European champions Internazionale caused quite the stir in Japan. Making his debut for Just Football, Adam Cobley assesses the history of Japanese footballers in Italy.
Yuto Nagatomo made quite the splash in his homeland on transfer deadline day, becoming the first Japanese player to sign for Inter Milan.
The move capped an outstanding six months for the left back, an impressive World Cup in the summer where he was on the pitch for every minute of Japan’s campaign, right up to the penalty shootout against Paraguay which saw his country eliminated in the last 16 of the tournament.
A move on loan from parent club FC Tokyo to Italian Serie A side Cesena was to follow and it took Nagatomo only half a season to earn a permanent deal at the club. The player’s efforts did not go unnoticed in Milan, with Inter coach Leonardo swooping to sign the defender on loan on transfer deadline day, a move that saw Davide Santon head in the opposite direction.
It wasn’t long before Nagatomo made his Inter debut, taking up his favoured position at left back (which saw Javier Zanetti switch to the right hand side). Nagatomo replaced Wesley Sneijder in the second half of a memorable 5-3 victory over Roma (6th February 2011).
Nagatomo joins the list of nine Japanese players who have appeared in Serie A, with Catania striker Takayuki Morimoto the only other Japanese player currently active in the Italian top flight.
Signed on loan in July 2006 by the Sicilian club, the Japanese starlet made his debut in January 2007 against Atalanta. Entering the fray as a substitute it took Morimoto only 5 minutes to open his goal scoring account, bringing the ball down inside the box with his left foot and finishing with his right to equalise the score at 1-1.
Much of the remainder of this season was missed by the number 15 due to cruciate ligament damage, however Catania were still keen to snap up Morimoto (who’s talents have since been compared to those of Brazilian legend Ronaldo by Alexandre Pato) long term, signing the player on a permanent deal for €600,000 in June 2007.
Despite this comparison to a young Ronaldo which came about due to the players’ size, strength and speed, Morimoto has found it increasingly difficult to break into the Catania side this season, making only a handful of appearances. Becoming disillusioned with his lack of playing time at Stadio Angelo Massimino he reportedly requested to leave during this year’s winter transfer window.
With a transfer for one of Asian football’s brightest prospects not coming to fruition, Morimoto will hope to replicate his club form of the 2008/09 and 2009/10 seasons in which he was a regular in the side, scoring and making plenty of goals in the process, form which earned him a call up for the Japanese World Cup campaign in 2010.
What the future holds for these two undeniably talented Japanese internationals in Serie A remains to be seen, however in some ways they must be thankful to the player who first brought Italian clubs’ attention to Japan.
Kazuyoshi Miura, sometimes referred to as King Kazu or simply Kazu (as depicted on the reverse of his national team shirts) was the first Japanese superstar footballer, the striker’s rise to fame coinciding with the inception of the J-League in 1993.
Kazu was the first player from his homeland to win Asian Player of the Year (1993), and one year later he earned a move to Genoa, becoming the first ever Japanese player in Serie A.
With 21 appearances in his one season with the Genoese club, Kazu only managed to score a solitary goal, but he couldn’t have picked a better game to score it; The Genoa Derby. With the ball headed down to Kazu in the area he delicately dinked the ball over the onrushing Sampdoria keeper with the outside of his right boot.
If Kazu was King then there can only been one heir to the throne. Hidetoshi Nakata was – and still is – the greatest Japanese footballer of all time.
The only Japanese player to be named by Pele on the FIFA 100 list, the attacking midfielder made his bow in Italy following World Cup ’98. Donning the number 7 shirt for Perugia his skill on the ball, ability to pick out spaces and range of passing was second to none, without even mentioning his ability to score from long range.
Perpetually moving forward Nakata was exciting to watch. Beating opposition players with ease he would always be looking to score or provide a scoring chance for a teammate, often creating something out of nothing.
After two years with Il Grifoni Nakata made a big money move to Roma. Although the midfielder only spent one year in the capital this was the greatest season of his career in terms of silverware, scooping a Serie A title in 2001.
Nakata played a huge part in Roma’s triumphant race for the championship. With his side 2-0 down away from home against a Zinedine Zidane inspired Juventus , Nakata was sent to the field by Fabio Capello as a second half substitute in place of Roma talisman Francesco Totti, who was clearly disappointed.
The move proved to be a masterstroke. With Nakata catching a Juventus midfielder in possession just inside the opposition half he progressed with the ball as he always looked to do. The Roma number 8 had two teammates ahead of him surrounded by a gaggle of defenders, with space being closed down rapidly he hit a rasping 30 yard drive which swerved into the top corner of the net leaving oustretched keeper Edwin Van Der Sar with no chance.
Not finished there Nakata later received a cut back on the edge of the area from left back Vincent Candela, hitting an angled drive which Van Der Sar could only parry into the path of Vincenzo Montella, who put the ball into the back of the net despite the best efforts of the Juve defenders. The final whistle was blown causing rapturous celebrations both on and off the field from players and supporters alike as Roma maintained a six point lead over their second placed rivals.
Ironically, Roma’s first title in 18 years was sealed with a 3-0 victory over Parma with whom Nakata would win a Coppa Italia the following season prior to spells with Bologna (loan) and Fiorentina.
When Nakata headed to Bolton in 2005 he left behind him a lasting legacy in Serie A, made even more impressive by the fact that he made such a mark whilst in an era where other world class attacking players such as Batistuta, Zidane, Rui Costa and Boban (to name a few) were also showcasing their talents in the Italian top flight.
It seems like a remarkable injustice that Nakata retired at the age of 29. Strangely, his time in Italy overlapped with another Japanese player who hoped to match his achievements in Serie A and also to succeed him as the new jewel in the crown of the national side.
To be continued…
Adam Cobley is a new contributor to Just Football. Check out his promising blog It began in 1992.