There was never any doubting the talents of Hidetoshi Nakata. A skilled midfield player who built himself a career in Europe with Perugia before going on to feature for Roma, Parma and Fiorentina amongst others, the Japanese was blessed with excellent technical ability and was a constant attacking threat. However, when we look back at Nakata’s career in the decades to come, it is likely to be his cross-cultural significance and not his footballing merits for which he will ultimately be remembered.
While the game has always had its superstars; George Best, Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona to name but a few, Nakata was football’s first truly modern, fully globalised icon. He was, to draw a simple comparison, Beckham before Beckham became the transcendental celebrity he is today.
The 1998 World Cup in France had been Nakata’s breakthrough moment, his performances for Japan (as well as his iconic dyed-red designer haircut) bringing him to the attention of European clubs and gaining him a move to Perugia later that summer. Nakata flourished during his 18 months with the Umbrian club, scoring 12 goals in 48 Serie A appearances and securing a big-money transfer to Fabio Capello’s Roma in the January of 2000.
It was two years later that Nakata’s fame and ubiquity reached fever pitch, the World Cup being played in Japan and South Korea with the Blue Samurai’s number seven a pivotal figure as the hosts reached the Last 16 before narrowly losing out to Turkey. The poster boy of a nation, Nakata was by then an internationally recognisable figure and a central agent in the blurring of the lines between footballers and celebrities which is so familiar today.
While the Japanese continued to impress from time to time with his mercurial excellence on the pitch, he became increasingly involved with the worlds of fashion and marketing off it. As an Italian GQ photographer said of Nakata in 2004, during his time at Fiorentina, “He’s perfect; he’s like a model and totally obsessed with fashion.” By that time the player was the face of several leading brands and was arguably the most famous individual in Japan; Hidetoshi Nakata’s status as an international cultural icon was confirmed.
It could, of course, very well be argued that Nakata’s fame had significant effects of football’s development in those early years of the twenty-first century. The game, for better or worse, had been moving towards an age of greater corporate sponsorship and investment throughout the 1990s, but it took figures such as Nakata and Beckham to complete the sport’s transition into the realm of globalised monopoly.
A force for the spread of the game in both geographical and merchandising terms in himself, Nakata (now a model for both Calvin Klein and Dior) was key to opening up the game’s Far Eastern market and, as such, is a central figure in the modern aggrandisement of football. He was the best Japanese player of his generation, but Nakata – who retired aged just 29 in 2006 – will go down in history as a global fashion icon and one of the first thoroughly modern sporting superstars.