The Long Read: Masashi Nakayama

Wednesday, April 8, 2020
Masashi Nakayama-Japan-AFP (2)

Kuala Lumpur: Japan’s Masashi Nakayama has one of the most glittering resumes in the history of Asian football having won the AFC Asian Cup, the Asian Club Championship and appeared at the FIFA World Cup, but for all his success, one failure in particular sticks in his mind.

Nearly two decades after he last pulled on the national team’s famous blue shirt, Nakayama’s name still resonates loudly within Japanese football. After a career spent as one of his country's footballing pioneers, his every utterance carries weight and significance.

Adored by fans for his never-say-die attitude, his professional and thorough approach always belied the fact his nickname ‘Gon’ was due to his resemblance to a comedy character on Japanese late-night television.

But for a man who achieved almost everything possible in the Asian game, who scored 247 goals in 539 games across a club career that lasted an astonishing 23 seasons, it is a rare failure that sticks uppermost in his mind.

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Nakayama is perhaps most famous for scoring Japan’s first-ever goal at the FIFA World Cup, when he netted in the 2-1 loss against Jamaica at France in 1998, but it was an incident earlier in the tournament he recalls when reminiscing about the Samurai Blues’ debut appearance at the game’s greatest event.

“I think having scored the first goal is not as important to me; it was the failure when I was one-on-one with the Croatian goalkeeper,” says Nakayama as he casts his mind back to a warm June afternoon in Nantes. “That’s what I remember more.

“In everything I have achieved, the failures were there to prepare me more to go to the next level. I remember it that way. Because I missed it, it made me work harder to get to the next level.”

The memory that lingers longest for Nakayama was formed 34 minutes into Japan’s meeting with Croatia at the Stade de la Beaujoire. 

The single-level stadium is packed, with the shrill high-pitched chanting of the Japanese drowned out by the throaty roar from the boisterous Croatians when Hidetoshi Nakata steals the ball in the midfield. 

The young midfielder bursts into the Croatian half, catching the opposition defenders on their heels; Nakayama peels towards the penalty area as Nakata shapes to ping the ball into the striker’s path. In one movement, he cushions the ball expertly on his thigh before going for goal.

But in his urgency, Nakayama fails to find the middle of the ball; the shot’s still going goalward but, under pressure from Zvonimir Soldo, the less-than-full-blooded effort is pushed to safety by Drazen Ladic, the goalkeeper palming the ball clear with his left hand. 

The Croatians avert the danger and one of Japan’s few attacks comes to nothing, while Nakayama sinks to his knees, his head on the turf as he punches the ground in frustration. 

In the end, Croatia run out 1-0 winners thanks to a goal from Real Madrid’s Davor Suker 13 minutes from time. Suker and company would go on to reach the semi-finals; Japan, having already lost their opening game to Argentina, would be going home no matter the result of their final game against Jamaica.

That was the game that yielded Nakayama’s historic goal, but even that is bittersweet. Trailing 2-0 in Lyon in a game the Japanese were expected to win, Nakayama netted to halve the deficit. There was little celebration, but rather a head-down run back to resume the game as quickly as possible. 

“I’m thankful I scored that goal because before every World Cup it comes up that I was the first player to score for Japan, but looking at the game, we were 2-0 down and I scored to make it 2-1,” he says. 

“At that time I was just thinking we have to score one more, I wasn’t thinking that my job was done. We needed to score again. I’m thankful I scored, but it wasn’t the best result.”

For all the challenges, however, Nakayama’s career was a major success by any measure.

His list of records is remarkable and includes the fastest ever hat-trick in international football, secured in the 9-0 win during qualifying for the 2000 AFC Asian Cup against Brunei Darussalam in Macau in February 2000.

All three goals were scored within three minutes and three seconds of the start of the game, an astonishing feat that arguably surpassed the four consecutive hat-tricks – also a world record – he scored in the J.League less than two years earlier.

His trophy-winning run started in late 1992 when he was part of the Japan squad that won the AFC Asian Cup title on home soil, defeating Saudi Arabia in the final in Hiroshima. 

Nakayama was 25 years old at the time and the insanity of the J.League era was still several months away. 

Unfancied – both at home and abroad – Japan defied the odds to win the title, building up a groundswell of support as they progressed through the tournament.

“It was also leading up to the qualifying rounds for USA ‘94, so it was a very good preparation for us,” says Nakayama. “The tournament was in Japan, too, but there was really no interest in the country initially.

“But the more we kept winning, the more the country got behind us and it was a really good atmosphere. It was great to get to that level at that moment. It was a great tournament to establish ourselves in Asia, to see where we were at Asian level as well.

“The year before we played in the Dynasty Cup with China PR and Korea Republic and we won that in a penalty shootout against Korea. We weren’t thinking about whether we were professional or not, it was about us coming together and having the willingness to put in the hard work to get to that level."

 “We knew we could be a strong team in Asia and I think it was a good time because all of the players who came together had that mentality. We were striving to get to a level that was respectable within Asia.” 

By March the next year, the J.League was launched amid much hype and fanfare. Stadiums across the country were sold out and football – which was nothing more than a niche, minority sport until that point – was suddenly vying with baseball for media attention.

The victory at the AFC Asian Cup just four months earlier played a contributory role in boosting the profile of players who, until that point, had been barely recognisable.

“A lot of national team players were playing for the J.League teams, so there was already that recognition because the players were Asian champions,” says Nakayama.

“On top of that, once the league became professional we had all these big-name players coming over from overseas playing as well and that also put a focus on the J.League.

“We were trying to make the league last, not just be a one-year wonder or that kind of thing. There was a lot of pride there and the players gave their all and it was a combination of that that allowed the league to do well and be very popular.”

The move was a success, with football vying for column inches in newspapers and airtime on television with baseball; Japan’s youth was embracing a game that gave them a greater international profile than the more established yet conservative baseball scene.

As a result, Japan’s footballers were afforded the full rock star treatment – with all the distractions that come with such status – but Nakayama worked to ensure he kept his feet on the ground and scoring goals.

“It was madness, with the games selling out and being very popular,” says Nakayama. “There was, initially, a rivalry with baseball which is still the number one sport, but we came very close and the gap was narrowed a fair bit and it was something the players were striving to do because a lot of people thought it was impossible."

“But there was also the madness from the fans; we were treated as if we were superstars. Some people got carried away with it, but I didn’t want that madness, I just wanted to improve as a player so I tried to stay grounded. I didn’t want any of that and let it ruin my life.”

The hype increased further towards the end of 1993 when Japan – now the Asian champions and with a full J.League season under their belts – setting their sights on a place at their first-ever FIFA World Cup in the United States.

Qualifying took place in Qatar, with Japan needing to win their final game against Iraq to book their berth.

But disaster hit in the dying minutes when Jaafar Omran struck in injury time, scoring the goal that gave Iraq a share of the points and ensuring Korea qualified ahead of Japan. Nakayama started the game for Japan – scoring his country’s second goal before being substituted 10 minutes from time – on a day that came to be known as the ‘Tragedy of Doha’ and the experience, among others, pushed the striker towards making even greater efforts to succeed. 

“In Doha, I was a member of the national team, but I wasn’t a regular and that was the one thing that pushed me,” he says. “What do I have to do to get to that level, to be a regular starting member of the team? 

“Then I had an injury and that set me back, but that made me realise what I had to do to get back into shape, to get back to where I was and become a starting member of the team. It was an unlucky event to have that injury, but it was also lucky because it made me reassess the work that I had to put in to be a starting member of the national team.”

What followed was one of the most successful careers in Japanese football, with three J.League titles and an Asian Club Championship win in Tehran against Esteghlal in 1999, the first by a Japanese club since the arrival of professional football in the country. 

There were personal accolades too: Nakayama was the J.League’s top scorer twice, in 1998 – when he was also named the league’s Most Valuable Player – and in 2000.

After 20 seasons with Jubilo Iwata – and their pre-J.League incarnation Yamaha Motors – Nakayama, at the age of 42, moved to Consadole Sapporo, where he finished his career three years later in 2012 when a knee injury prevented him from continuing aged 45.

“I was able to have such a long career because I didn’t want to let the team down, it’s not just about me,” he says.

“Everyone is working together and I want to be there for my teammates and ensure they’re happy with me so we can get to where we can. That pushed me, supporting the team and being part of the team.”

Injury, ultimately, ended Nakayama’s long and illustrious career, but there is no sense of regret from a player who achieved more than many as he watches the current generation of Japanese players move to Europe in increasing numbers to try their luck.

“If I was 25, I’d be aiming to do what the other guys are doing and try to go and play overseas, but I think I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. “I was there and went through everything I went through and we did what was right at the time.

“I was part of the history of Japanese football. That’s how it was meant to be. If I hadn’t had my injuries, I’d probably still be playing at this age and aiming to do my best. Never give up, just keep trying.

“When we were playing, we laid down the groundwork for what’s happening today."

"We made sure the league was popular and made sure that the position in Asia was recognised and established and then the whole situation became easier for players to move overseas and play.

“The guys from my generation would like to take a little bit of credit for where things are today, having laid out that groundwork for the players today.”

This article was originally published in AFC Quarterly Issue 11, July 2015

Photos: JFA, FIFA

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