Japanese fans voice mixed feelings over Nakata exit

TOKYO, July 4, 2006 (AFP) – Japanese fans expressed sadness but also a sense of inevitability Tuesday over the shock retirement of star midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata following Japan’s early exit from the 2006 World Cup.

"It’s a pity," said Touru Maeda, a 40-year-old ticket-seller. "I think he still had plenty of time to shine as a player."

"I think he is a wonderful player. During the World Cup, I don’t think the other (Japanese) players could follow what he was trying to achieve."

Others were less upset, saying it was time for some new blood in the team.

"I think it’s good that he’s retiring. He’s reached the limit, his peak," said one 56-year-old businessman taking a break from the office in central Tokyo.

The departure of Nakata, twice the Asian player of the year, comes as the national team looks to reorganise under their expected new coach, Ivica Osim who piloted the former Yugoslavia to the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup.

Despite the loss of the 29-year-old player, seen by many as a figurehead of the nation’s rapid rise as a force in international football, there was also hope that Japan could bounce back from its World Cup disappointment.

"Even if he’s not part of the team any more, the new coach can pull Japan through, and there will be a new representative for the Japanese team," said 25-year-old musician Takayuki Kobayashi.

Osim, who has been lined up to replace Brazilian legend Zico as coach of Japan’s national team, said no one had contributed to Japanese soccer like Nakata.

"It’s bad news for the nation’s soccer," Osim was quoted as saying by the Sports Nippon newspaper. "I hope he would stay somehow connected to soccer."

Japan’s biggest export in world football, Nakata had made a welcome return to something like his best form for Italian side Parma before the 2002 World Cup on his home soil.

Famous for his vision and probing passing, he added a touch of class to Japan’s midfield and was the conduit for most of his team’s attacking moves.

More recently, however, Nakata had struggled to get into the side with English Premiership club Bolton Wanderers since he moved there on loan from Fiorentina last year after seven years in Italy’s Serie-A.

"It was such a sudden but such Nakata-like ending," said the Sports Nipppon, which carried a photo on its front page of Nakata shedding tears after Japan was knocked out by Brazil 4-1 in the World Cup in Germany.

"He still is 29. But the man of pride, who doesn’t accept any less than the best, probably wouldn’t want to cling on to playing professionally by playing in a lower league and club," the sports daily said.

The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s leading dailies, said Nakata was an "individualistic frontrunner."

"His individualistic disposition made him isolated in the team," the newspaper said.

"He has said before what would become valuable after his athletic career would be connections, international experiences and language abilities," it said.

"If he was a player who only fits in the soccer world, he might have played a bit longer."