Say It Ain’t So, Shunsuke
After playing as a substitute in one game during this World Cup, Japan’s beloved star, Shunsuke Nakamura has retired from international football at the age of 32. This came as a total shocker to me and was almost as painful to hear as it was to see Japan lose on penalties to Paraguay. For many fans, Shunsuke Nakamura and his sublime left foot has been the showcase of Japanese football over the past several years. But an ankle injury and general poor form led to Nakamura, who used to be a favorite of Okada’s, losing his starting position.
I was hoping that Nakamura was just reacting negatively to his lack of playing time in this World Cup, but it seems that his mind is made up. His club, Yokohama F Marinos, even urged him to reconsider his retirement from the national squad, but Nakamura indicated that no one will be able to change his mind.
This marks the second straight World Cup in which a Japanese fan favorite has retired unexpectedly. Luckily for us, unlike Hidetoshi Nakata who completely retired from football at the age of 29 after the Germany World Cup, Nakamura is “only” retiring from international football. But its gut-wrenching to think that we’ll only get to see Nakamura’s left foot in the J-league from now on.
I’ve never been a fan of players retiring from international football. I felt that if you’re giving it your best on your club team and your national team coach feels you are good enough for the team, you should come out and play a few times a year. The coach really determines whether you’ve “retired” from international football or not.
But with Nakamura, I wonder if the pain of sitting on the bench was too much for him. I remember 12 years ago when Nakamura was playing in the high school national soccer championship in Japan. Although his team lost the championship game, the media had already seen him as Japan’s next star and thus interviewed him after the game. One quote I remember vividly was him saying, “I want to carry the Hinomaru (Japanese flag) on my chest and represent my country.” Such outward patriotism is pretty rare for a high school kid from Japan, but those words taught me that Nakamura cared deeply about putting on that blue jersey.
Nakamura also published a book called “My soccer notebooks” in which he published portions of notes that he takes before and after each game. In his notes, he constantly wrote about wearing the number 10 for the Japan National Team. He didn’t want to just be on the team, he wanted to be the best on the team, and now that he cannot fulfill that role, perhaps he feels like he doesn’t deserve to be on the team.
Finally, for a player that played and succeeded in Europe and in the Champions League, perhaps the thought of travelling hundreds of miles within Asia to take on uncompetitive teams is no longer appealing. At Nakamura’s level perhaps only the World Cup is a tournament worth playing for and at the age of 32, he realistically knows that he won’t be playing in Brazil 2014 at the age of 36.
Whatever the true reasons, I am totally saddened that I’ll never get to see Shunsuke play with that Hinormaru on his chest again. I will miss those mesmerizing free kicks and perfect through balls. Heck, I’ll even miss that horrible flopping haircut.
Now that we’ve gotten past the sad news, let’s talk about some of the exciting transfer news that has been coming up. I’ve always found it strange that players from smaller football-ing nations are “discovered” during the World Cup. If these teams really cared about making their teams better, they would have scouts around the world looking for talent in lesser leagues such as the J-league. That way they could get these players for a lot cheaper and not have to base their decisions on a handful of World Cup games. But I’m not complaining here. I’m glad that these Japanese players are getting a bit more attention.
DF Nagatomo: Nagatomo’s menacing defense shut down some powerful players from Cameroon, Holland, Denmark and Paraguay and Europe has taken notice. Both Birmingham and AS Roma were rumored to have interest and it looks like Roma have put in an official offer of 2-3 million Euros. Roma were looking to solidify their defense with either Roberto Carlos or Nagatomo, and it looks like they’ve decided to go for youth (Nagatomo is 23). Most of the Japanese players who have transferred to Europe have been skillful offensive players, but this marks one of the first times that a defender has been shown interest. Perhaps there is a stereotype that Japanese players are too small to play defense in Europe, but clearly Nagatomo has shown that he can play with the big boys.
MF Hasebe: Speaking of Roma, apparently the team was also interested in pursuing Hasebe, but since he signed a new two year contract with Wolfsburg, this deal is likely to not happen.
MF Honda: Everyone wants to know where Honda will end up next season, but it seems that CSKA Moscow knows what a treasure they have in Honda and are keen on waiting for the highest bidder. It was been reported that AC Milan put in an offer for 10 million Euros for Honda, but CSKA Moscow turned this offer down. Liverpool and Arsenal have also been rumored to be interested. I really want to see Honda play top-flight football in Europe because he has the pace, power and desire to compete with the best in the world. He could be this generation’s Nakata – a player who can not only play in but become a star on one of the world’s top teams.
MF Endo: Another big rumor is that Liverpool is interested in Endo. You never know what's true with these media reports but it'd be a dream to see multiple Japanese players at big name clubs. With Honda getting so much publicity at this World Cup people may have forgotten that Endo is one of the best players in the Japanese midfield. I'd love to see him test his abilities in the EPL.
GK Kawashima: Belgian First Division team, Lierse have signed GK Kawashima. I don’t know too much about this team, but it’s great that Kawashima is getting a chance to prove himself in Europe. As far as I know, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi is the only Japanese goalkeeper to test his skills in Europe and his results were modest at best. Hopefully, Kawashima can continue to play at the level that he played during the World Cup and show that Japanese players can succeed in Europe between the posts as well.
I’m sure in the coming weeks there will be other transfer news that will excite Japanese fans. For now, I’m really excited to see Nagatomo play in Roma and am hoping that Honda gets transferred to a top-flight team. I’m worried his stock is a little too high now and CSKA Moscow will be too greedy and won’t sell his right. Hopefully I’m wrong about this though. In general though, I am so happy to see so many Japanese players getting the opportunity to play in Europe. Even if a player doesn't succeed in Europe, just the fact that he lived and played abroad makes him a stronger player for the national team. Whether it's a different level of professionalism, a harder style of play, a new strategic theory, or even just a new culture and language, there is just so much to be gained by living abroad and playing in a completely new environment. It only makes the player and thus the Japan national team stronger. Go West, young man!