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Posted by Kentaro Matsuura on 06/08/2010

Hidetoshi Nakata, arguably Japan’s best soccer player to date, sat down for a one-on-one chat with Keisuke Honda, the CSKA Moscow player who is considered Japan’s next star. Both players are unique in Japan not only for their unmistakable soccer talent, but also for their individualistic personalities and playing styles that contrast with the typical group-first mentality of most Japanese. In a country where “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down,” these two players have bravely defied tradition and developed a playing style full of individualistic flair. Nakata, a soccer savant by Japanese standards, offers Ayn Rand-esque advice to Honda about the virtues of selfishness. The following is my paraphrased translation of the conversation that took place on Asahi TV this week. It’s long, but well worth it.

Succeeding in Europe as a Japanese
Honda: In Europe I had to learn to win one-on-one battles just to survive on my team. In Japan all we learn is how to pass. When I was in Holland with VVV Venlo, we got relegated to the second division, and I thought, there’s no way I can be playing in the second division. Not me. I decided I needed to just score goals to get noticed and make it to the next level. No one was going to notice my passes. I couldn’t make it to the next level with assists.

Nakata: When you’re abroad nobody takes a Japanese soccer player seriously. Because of this, you just have to score. Then people start passing to you. It’s really simple abroad. Those who can’t score can’t make it abroad. Maybe it’s good that you dropped to the second division.

Virtues of Selfishness
Nakata: Do you want to do what’s right for the team and play balanced offensively and defensively? Or do you want to bring out your individual qualities and do what’s best for yourself and go forward and score? You have to let your individual qualities shine. Everyone will criticize you if the results don’t come. Your teammates, the media, coaches... Tell me, how do you feel when people criticize you? You probably don’t feel that bad being criticized. It gives you strength.

Honda: Yeah, I suppose I feel like I’m being noticed.

Nakata: I understand that feeling too. Actually if your defenders are telling you you’re doing a good job, there’s probably something wrong.

Honda: I want to be recognized for my style of play. I’m not a striker but… I want to be near the goal and take lots of shots… be a player that’s feared by the other team. I don’t want to be a defensive midfielder or side halfback at a big club. I want to be a player that a coach at a big club cannot live without unless he has me playing attacking center midfielder. Someone who scores goals or makes goals happen. The player that the defense hates the most. That’s who I want to be.

Nakata: it’s all about how much you can bring out your individual characteristics and how selfish you can be. This is especially true when playing on the Japan National Team. There’s a lot that people are going to criticize you for. But I believe you have to continue in your own way and this is the most important thing for you on the Japan National team.

Level of Japanese Soccer Today
Nakata: So how’s the team (Japan)?

Honda: Well, of course we’re the weakest of the four teams in our group. We have the lowest probability in the group, but we will fight them.

Nakata: Well from a skill level perspective, or if you look at speed over short distances or even strategy, there probably aren’t any teams that are that much better than us. In practice or mini-games, we’re really good. Japanese players can pass the ball around so quickly and skillfully. Even I feel unskilled compared to them!

Honda: The level of Japanese soccer is getting so much higher. We keep saying that but what does that mean? We’re playing soccer to get goals, right? So our skill level is going up, but what is skill? Are we scoring more goals because of this higher skill level?

Nakata: The technique that Japan possesses is the kind of technique you can use in practice. But that doesn’t translate into games. If you showed people a Japanese practice, people would think we’re at the very highest level in the world. Can we use this in game? No we can’t… That being said, if we can do it in practice, we should theoretically be able to use it in a game. But we can’t.

Honda: Why is that?

Nakata: We don’t know how to use the skill we possess. Understanding how the match progresses, how we put feelings into the game, the emotional aspect. We might be spec'd to go 300 kilometers per hour, but at this point, we only know how to go 200kph.

Honda: Maybe there’s something wrong with the way we practice.

Nakata: At least when I played for Japan that was true. I remember telling the media after the 2006 World Cup qualifiers that at this rate, Japan can’t win. Sometimes we can bring out our best. But we can’t bring that out constantly for an extended time. That’s what I experienced in qualifying. This game was good, that game was bad. We just don’t know how to bring it out every time. We don’t know how to approach games or practices. It’s the basis of everything, but it’s what’s missing for Japan right now. But we don’t approach practice like a match so you can’t bring out that emotion in a match. To bring something out in a match, you need to bring it out in practice. In a foreign practice, the players will come at you at full force and knock you with no problems.

Honda: Yes, that’s true. There are so many times I’ve even seen fights during practices.

Nakata: That’s how intense everyone is. That’s what’s missing with Japanese players. If you have that fight and the skills and speed and tactics, you can go far. I’m not one to tell my teammates to work harder or try harder. That’s something that is obvious to me. But I realize that’s what’s missing. In this World Cup, I don’t care to see the skills or tactics. They’re high already. What was missing in 2006 was our readiness and willingness to fight. I want to see if we’ve improved on that front for this World Cup.

Honda’s play at the World Cup
Nakata: What kind of play do you want to do at the World Cup?

Honda: It’s my first time. I wondered during the Champions League how nervous I’d get at the World Cup. I tried to make myself nervous on purpose before the games by telling myself, if we lose we’re out. I thought, then I could learn to control my nervousness during the World Cup. For me, it’s exciting. Preparation is everything. Do I have what it takes to score against Cameroon? Who knows? But in myself I do believe I have the ability. If I or the strikers don’t score who’s going to score? That’s how I think. Let’s quickly get forward instead of staying back. Let’s quickly take shots when the game starts. Score like you did against Juventus (when Nakata was with Roma). If I see a small opening I’ll shoot. How many times will I be able to get that shot? I have a feeling over 90 minutes this could possibly turn into one or two goals, hopefully. People watching will probably say, “You suck!" and "Why don’t you pass to the open forward?!” I know you’re supposed to pass to the open player. That’s the “correct” thing to do… But, I don’t think we can play pretty soccer. I know ideally we want to play the Japanese style of soccer, but maybe we will only go in front of the goal twice. People say don't take too many risks, but I’m afraid of not taking risks. Isn’t it a bigger risk not to take risks? What’s the point if we don’t take risks?

Final Advice from Nakata:

Nakata: A selfish player either ends up being an idiot or a great player. If you get the results, you’re great. If not, you’re an idiot. But if they think you’re an idiot, it doesn’t end there. Eventually selfish players usually rise to the top. They might say, “He never passes, but he takes every shot and every free kick”. Eventually the selfish player will score and be a hero and everything in the past is forgotten. That’s the world of soccer. If you keep listening around you and pass the ball because you’re told to, if you don’t have that selfishness, you’ll end up being a good player, but you’ll never be an exceptional player. Even when you don’t produce results, stay strong. Especially abroad, you have to be selfish if you want to keep rising to the top. Based on my experience, you have to do that. I was someone who wasn’t able to unleash all of my selfishness. My biggest regret in my soccer life was that I couldn’t be selfish enough. You’re about to take a similar path to mine, and you seem like the kind of player who wants to bring your talents and qualities out. So my advice to you is to bring it out even more.

I’ve been watching you and you’re playing very well offensively and you’re scoring goals. This is simple and important. Even within the Japanese National Team, what we are missing most is scoring ability. Games with scores of 4-3 or 5-4, can we do a game like that? Right now, we can’t. We need to become a team that can get goals. Go ahead and go forward and score goals. It’s very important. You’re going to continue abroad and deliver results. Don’t worry about matching with the team, I hope you continue to do what you think is right and be selfish.

What I was expecting of Honda Keisuke as a person and soccer player turned out to be correct after meeting you today. I felt like I’m probably really similar to you.

Honda: I felt that way too, and I’m really happy about it!!

Nakata: Because I think we're similar, I'll tell you that I have these regrets about not being selfish enough in my soccer life, and I want you to play so you don’t have those regrets. You probably have a lot of questions and what not, but I just want you to not have the same regrets. I just want to see how selfish you can be. How much of a hero can you be? I want you to come back after the World Cup and at worst say, “(Nakata), because of you, we lost in the World Cup!” How much are you going to play like yourself? That’s what I’m excited to see. It’s like Beckham. He’s blamed for England losing (in 1998) and then later (in 2002) he’s the hero. It’s one or the other. I’ don’t want to be mediocre – that’s the worst. I’d rather be the worst or the best. Be one or the other. Finally, don’t get too nervous about the world cup (laughs). Just take that first shot, and you’ll be OK. Well, it’s not anything to get nervous about.

Honda: Well you’ve been in three World Cups!

Nakata: Now there’s players on the team who’ve been in four World Cups! Goalkeepers, Narazaki and Kawaguchi.

Honda: Well you could’ve played in four!

Nakata: HAHAHA, I’ll reconsider it after 2010 is done!


Posted by Tetsuka on 06/09/2010

I'm glad that Nakata pointed out the exact issues about Japan's style of playing and I really hope Nakata will play again. Japan needs someone like these two who are not shy in shooting and willing to play more aggresively. :)

Posted by Samurai Blue on 06/09/2010

Very nice! Thank you for the hard work! Enjoyed it.

Posted by Honda's fan on 06/09/2010

Nakata's advice is 100% true. It can even apply to our life not only soccer. Go honda!!, you can be a one of the best in the world. It doesn't matter you win or loose, but must do your best. Go Japan!!!

Posted by Akiruno Life on 06/09/2010

I watched this interview on TV this past Sunday. Great translation of the entire chat! It was great to see these two guys together, and finally hear what Nakata really thought about past Japanese teams in the World Cup. The national team needs more players like these guys. その意地を貫け!

Posted by Kei on 06/09/2010

That was a very, very refreshing discussion between the two. Nakata in his heyday was among the best players on the planet, and while I don't want to put Honda on that high a pedestal, I see plenty to suggest he could be every bit as good as Hide.

We might not have much to look forward to in this World Cup compared to other teams, but we'll at least have Keisuke on our side. I can't wait to see how he performs in South Africa.

Posted by Kigai on 06/09/2010

Nakata is right, if you ever watch Japanese players in practice they are soooo good! But they have trouble translating that skill in practice to the real match. It's all mental.

Posted by Yokota on 06/10/2010

Japan needs to overcome its inferiority complex. Not only in sports but everywhere in society. That complex is almost embarrassingly evident in its offensive game, especially in front of the goal...how many times have you screamed at the screen: "Shooooot Damn it!!!!!"
but i still find myself watching them.....what a curse

Posted by Derek on 06/14/2010

thanks for translating this into English! it really helps me understand what's going on with the Japanese team

Posted by kikus on 06/15/2010

отлично сделано, интеретсно читать 98)

Posted by kikus on 06/15/2010

отлично написано, у автора прям талант

Posted by PunditMan on 06/25/2010

Some intersting thoughts there. Nakata is right about the need on occasion to be more selfish but Japan have the right balance at the minute, their teamwork is exceptional and Honda is a real gem.

Posted by incubator on 02/13/2011

Thanks for posting this article. I am definitely tired of struggling to find relevant and intelligent commentary on this subject. Everyone nowadays goes to the very far extremes to either drive home their viewpoint of that everybody else in the globe is wrong. Thanks for your consise and relevant insight.

Posted by HHO generator on 02/15/2011

Searching for this for some time now - i guess luck is more advanced than search engines

Posted by CauppyMug on 03/11/2011

Very informative post. Thanks for taking the time to share your view with us.

Posted by dave on 04/26/2011

He is right, majority of the best players in the world are selfish.

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Kentaro Matsuura was born in Japan and following a move to the USA resorted to following the national team by renting video tapes in Chinatown. Most recently, Kentaro played for and ran the football club at his graduate school, where he studied business. He will join a consulting firm upon graduation.

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