Peroxide-bleached hair, a passion for sake and a career that showed light to the entire continent of Asia. Hidetoshi Nakata made Captain Tsubasa come to life.
You always remember your firsts; they take you to places you hadn’t yet reached, or sometimes even, conceived. Your first date, your first time at a stadium, your first ever car, and the first time you snuck out of the house to go hang out with your cool friends five blocks away.
1996 was one such year of firsts. Japan were announced as co-hosts for the 2002 World Cup along with South Korea. The greatest show on earth had never travelled outside the Americas and Europe, and it was now en route to the far east. It was also the year when Japan beat defending world champions Brazil at the Atlanta Olympics, another first in their short history as a significant football nation.
Japan would get knocked out themselves, but like with any underdog story, it was a victory over the big dog that stuck longest in memory. Their talisman that day was a nimble-footed 19 year-old midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, or Hide as he was known among friends and family, who carried a copy of Captain Tsubasa, the cult classic of a football-manga comic from 1981, wherever he went. A year on, he’d bag himself the AFC Player of The Year award, and the collective attention of the entire football community, a luxury South-East Asian footballers just hadn’t been afforded before. At the 1998 World Cup too, he’d be the lone shining beacon for Japan, as the rest of the side crumbled under the pressure of their first ever appearance at football’s grand quadrennial. Nakata’s peroxide-bleached hair was relegated to a minor distraction by his audaciously talented feet.
In one of the panels from the comic Captain Tsubasa, the protagonist, a young Tsubasa himself, is shown staring wistfully at a picture of the Italian team holding the 1982 World Cup trophy. His dream was to win the World Cup for Japan and play for some of the best clubs in Europe. Back in 1981, Japan could only dream; it didn’t have as much as a professional football league, and exporting players to the world’s elite was left to cartoons. Until, when in 1998, Perugia came looking for Nakata, with 4 million USD and a dream of changing the landscape of South-East Asian football. Japan’s very own was going to the Serie A; at that time comfortably the best football league in Europe. With the 2002 World Cup now visible across the horizon, the economic implication of this move was of little secret, but it’s safe to say that the scale and impact was definitely underestimated.
Before long, all of Perugia’s games were telecasted on Japan’s pay-per-view channels, and Japanese press corps were stationed in Italy, tasked with wiring across realtime updates of Hide’s life. Nakata obliged the fanfare in true comic hero style, bagging two goals on his debut against mighty Juventus.
Soon enough, he was facing them again, this time as a Roma player replacing Francesco Totti at the Stadio delle Alpi. The most gripping stories pit the protagonist against an equal or stronger adversary, in conditions hand-stitched for his fall; cakewalk victories and easy rides back home don’t make cult heroes. The big scoreboard at the stadium read 2-0 to Juventus, and three massive points were about to be cut down from Roma’s already slender 6-point lead, with less than a month left in the season. Nakata turned it around for Roma in spectacular style, driving a 30-yarder past Edwin van der Sar and then setting up the second goal. The game ended 2-2, Roma kept their lead, and went on to win their first Scudetto since 1983, poetically the same year when Captain Tsubasa first aired on Japanese national television. It was a good time to be Hidetoshi Nakata; a timeless Nike advert with Henry, Figo and Davids, a transfer to Parma that would be the most expensive for any Asian footballer until 2015, and a growing reputation in the fashion community. Nakata was so much more than the shirt selling machine many in Italy had marked him out to be. In a league which had Del Piero, Zidane, Totti, Batistuta, Baggio and Maldini, little Hide was carving himself a generous niche, in no little part a credit to his skills as a footballer and athlete.
At their home World Cup, Japan, led by Nakata, finally made it out of the group stage, but fell at the first hurdle after. The sea of blue and red at the stadiums that summer told us loud enough that football had changed in Asia, and Hidetoshi Nakata was central to this metamorphosis; top-dollar deals with Nike, Canon, MasterCard, Coca-Cola, Subaru and Sky Perfect TV left little doubt.
Like Tsubasa, Nakata continued travelling and exploring different teams, but called it quits way before the world saw enough of him. In comparison to the average footballer, his career was short, but you’ll have to travel long and hard to find one as culturally significant and impactful.
Today, Hidetoshi Nakata is an evangelist for Japanese culture, spending most of his time talking about fashion, sake and his roots. After retirement, in one such moment of inspiration, he mentioned “All my life I just played football, basically. Every country I went … people asked me about Japan but I didn’t know anything about it. That’s a part of my life, so I need to become a better Japanese person.”
Captain Tsubasa, too, was distinctly Japanese, and inspired an entire generation of footballers, namely Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero. Hidetoshi Nakata, though he might scoff at the suggestion, lit up the path for Asian football to compete against the elite on a regular basis. For someone who swore by the comic, Nakata ensured that Japan and South-East Asia would have a lot more to give to football than dreams and anime.