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Hidetoshi Nakata: Japan's misunderstood son returns from exile

By Matthew Ponsford and Junko Ogura, CNN
updated 10:26 AM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
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Japan's first footballing legend
Japan's first footballing legend
Japan's first footballing legend
Japan's first footballing legend
Japan's first footballing legend
Japan's first footballing legend
Japan's first footballing legend
Japan's first footballing legend
Japan's first footballing legend
Japan's first footballing legend
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hidetoshi Nakata became Japan's first footballing hero, starring at the 1998 World Cup
  • He is known as "Japan's David Beckham" for his celebrity status on and off the field
  • In 2006, he made shock decision to retire after his third World Cup, aged 29
  • He set off traveling the world ... and has now returned to learn about Japan

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for videos and features

(CNN) -- By the age of just 29, Hidetoshi Nakata was recognized by many as the greatest footballer Japan had ever produced. So why the glum look?

"To be honest with you, it was not my dream," Nakata admits, now, to CNN's Human to Hero series, as he reflects on the emotions he was feeling at his third World Cup, in Germany in 2006.

The fans, the media, his teammates: no-one managed to get behind the dark designer sunglasses.

No-one understood why -- at the end of a hard-fought defeat to reigning champions Brazil, which meant early elimination for Japan -- the usually stoic Nakata lay down on the turf at the Dortmund's Westfalenstadion and wouldn't get up.

"It's unforgettable," he says now -- but still offers no more explanation.

That night, his face cracked with pain, Nakata wept under the spotlights.

Little-known to any of the traveling Japanese fans assembled in the terraces that evening, Nakata -- a player just reaching the height of his powers -- had made a secret decision, six months before, to walk away from it all.

Today

When Nakata arrives to talk about World Cups and what he has been doing for the last eight years, he's nattily dressed -- leather jacket, smart slacks, brightly-colored socks -- and even when out on the pitch, he juggles the ball on expensive-looking designer leather pumps.

It's not for nothing that he gets described as Asia's answer to David Beckham.

Like Beckham, the hairstyles are now more restrained -- the attention-demanding red spikes are long gone -- and like the English superstar, his reputation continues to extend far beyond his home country: both as Japan's most gifted footballing export and an ambassador for Tokyo's fashion industry.

It took eight years in the wilderness -- first wandering across the globe on a meandering journey of self-discovery that he estimates covered close to a hundred countries from Tanzania to Turkmenistan -- but Nakata seems to have found himself.

"All my life, I played just football. I didn't know what the world was like outside of football," he explains.

"I wanted to know what's happening now in the world, and what I could do for the world."

In his time away, Nakata -- now 37 -- appears to have resolved some of the contradictions that once made him the misunderstood man of Asia's rising footballing generation.

Like, why did the flamboyantly dressed star -- followed wherever he went by battalions of newly galvanized Japanese soccer fans and screeching admirers, a man who led the first generation of sports stars to share their lives on the internet -- plead so strongly for privacy?

And why did a player whose evident love of the game changed perceptions of football in Asia give it all up?

Having crossed the world looking for answers, he's finding them closer to home. The one-time Calvin Klein underwear model who, for years, fought to escape his native country's media, has returned home with the aim to visit each of Japan's 47 prefectures, hoping to reconnect with the "real" people he is getting to know.

"So many people, so many friends asked me about Japan but I couldn't answer," he says.

"In the end, I just realized I didn't know about Japan."

Today, fashion takes a back seat -- although he still boasts an unmistakable, if now lower-key style -- and the focus is on the traditional craft of his new job as a sake maker and self-appointed ambassador for Japanese culture abroad.

"I have decided to travel in Japan to learn Japanese culture. So, last five years, I have been traveling all the prefectures in Japan, meeting craftsmen, farmers, sake makers and trying to see what are the best hotels and restaurants ... you know, just to tell my friends."

Nakata the player

Nakata arrived on the world stage at France '98 -- a willowy, nimble 21-year-old with a peroxide orange crop of hair.

He brought with him the Asian Footballer of the Year title (which he would win again the following year) and a defined reputation as a prickly interviewee off the field.

Nakata against Argentina at France 98
Ben Radford /Allsport/Getty Images/File

His performances for Japanese J-League club Bellmare, and five goals for the national team in qualification for Japan's historic first World Cup, had demonstrated a strong dribbling game and knack for ghosting into the penalty area to score goals.

"The first match was against Argentina, which was very difficult -- but at the same time I didn't have anything to lose," he recalls.

Flying at full-tilt, making mazing runs through nano-scale gaps in the Argentine defense in the second half, Nakata looked like the rare sort of player who could make the difference even against the world's best opposition.

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He's a player who "never really had problems playing under pressure," he admits.

"I had a lot of motivation and, just like a small kid, it's just having great toys to play with."

Journey to Italy

Despite losing 1-0 in that match (and succumbing to one-goal losses in both the other group games) the debutants became favorites among neutrals for their classy, ball-down, passing play and desire to take games to vastly more experienced opponents -- typified by Nakata.

The next season would see him whisked off to newly-promoted Serie A hopefuls Perugia for $4 million amid reported bids from Manchester United, as he became just the second Japanese footballer to play in Italy's top division.

Critics screamed that the Umbrian club had bought a novelty act -- a flash in the pan, buoyed by World Cup excitement. Nakata responded with silence off the field and by blowing away expectations on it -- starting with two goals in a 4-3 loss to champions Juventus on the opening day of the season.

"Going to Italy from Japan, obviously, culturally they are totally different, so it was very difficult to learn the Italian language and the lifestyle as well," Nakata says.

"But football is always the same -- football is football all over the world -- so I was just concentrating to play football."

He scored 10 times in his first season and soon earned a $29.5 million transfer to Fabio Copello's title-challenging Roma side.

In the final stretch of the 2000-01 season, he helped Roma come from 2-0 down against a Zinedine Zidane-inspired Juve, scoring a spectacular strike before another long-range attempt led to the equalizer.

The result proved crucial as Roma secured just its third league title since forming in 1927, and it earned Nakata another big-money move to Parma -- where he won the Italian Cup the following season, scoring a crucial late away goal in the first leg of the final against Juventus.

The joy of football

His next two World Cup finals would take him from that highest high to the lowest low.

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In 2002, Japan and South Korea co-hosted as the tournament came to Asia for the first time.

"It was very special because all the population in Japan was really expecting something," Nakata says.

"So we had to pass through (the group stages) for sure, even though we lost all three games in the 1998 World Cup."

After a draw against Belgium and a 1-0 win over Russia, Japan faced Tunisia in the final group game with all four teams still able to qualify. Heading into the last 15 minutes, the host nation had struggled to break through, but led 1-0 thanks to a reflex strike from substitute midfielder Hiroake Morishima.

When fellow replacement Daisuke Ichikawa broke down the right and floated a high ball toward the back post, Nakata, with a sharp header, sent Japan through at the top of the group.

"When we came out from the stadium, there were so many people outside the stadium clapping their hands and it seemed like all of Japan were there. And we were so proud of ourselves."

Love lost

The years leading to the next World Cup would be characterized by full-blown "Nakatamania" -- perhaps apt for a man who was inspired to play the game as a child by the popular Japanese cartoon character "Captain Tsubasa."

Wherever he traveled in Italy, a corps of 20-or-so Japanese reporters followed -- sending back bulletins on his health, his hairstyle, and any hint of a scoop about his private life.

Nakata frontrow at Milan Fashion Week
Victor Boyko/Getty Images for Moncler

The onlookers would have to be dragged away from training sessions and even friendlies against amateur sides would be beamed across the world to be shown live in Japan. Books about him sold in the hundreds of thousands.

Nakata had long since stopped talking to the press -- whose tabloid intrusions and tired questions had riled him as a young player in Japan. Instead he talked through his website Nakata.net, which was swamped with 15 million hits a day.

All this attention was not missed by clubs.

The reports of offers from Manchester United in 1998 had set off the uneasy relationship between Nakata the midfield maestro and -- in the words of the New York Times' Paddy Agnew -- the "one-man tourist attraction and a small merchandising gold mine" he represented to owners.

The rumors that year claimed the bids were backed by United shareholder Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB satellite TV company with an eye to opening up deals in east Asia -- without team boss Alex Ferguson's knowledge.

For years to follow, any club where Nakata pulled on the jersey could watch tens of thousands of replicas fly out the shop -- mostly to Japanese tourists. Wherever he went, fans and press asked whether talent or commercial interests justified his presence.

Why he walked

After two and a half seasons at Parma, he went to Bologna and Fiorentina before finally ending up in England in August 2005.

However, it was not in Manchester, or London -- Nakata signed for distinctly unfashionable Premier League club Bolton Wanderers on a loan deal.

The northern town -- not far from Manchester, but better known as the birthplace of the ice cream wafer sandwich than for its fashion and culture credentials -- represented even more of a culture shock to Nakata.

"It was difficult to adapt to," he would later explain in an interview with men's style magazine GQ.

Under manager Sam Allardyce, Nakata was pinned uncomfortably into a rigid 4-4-2 system and rarely allowed to wander freely, as he did at his best. After six months, his love for the game faded, and he made his secret pact to retire.

Nakata and Edgar Davids host a charity football match
Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

Japan again

Despite that early end to his top-level career, Nakata has always traveled with a pair of boots in his suitcase.

I think football is the best tool to communicate with other people, to connect the people.
Hidetoshi Nakata

He'll be at the next World Cup -- backed by his sake brand, to show off the Japanese culinary craft and alcohol making he's learned about on his travels -- and he'll often be found playing in charity matches with old footballing friends from Italy and Japan.

Now he sees the game as a way to get to know people -- and, perhaps, for people to finally get to know him.

"I think football is huge. I think football is the best tool to communicate with other people, to connect the people," he says.

"It's beyond the countries, it's beyond languages.

"Football is the biggest thing to share, to connect the entire world so ... even outside the stadium, I can play football to connect the people."

Read: Street kid to World Cup 'legend'

Read: World Cup winner with 'two hearts'

Read: Iron Curtain no barrier for Baltacha

Read: Leading Nigeria out of darkness

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