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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Experience has taught Nakamura how to persevere


Staff writer

YOKOHAMA — If the J. League is looking for inspiration as it prepares to restart the season on Saturday, Shunsuke Nakamura knows more than a thing or two about triumph over adversity.

News photo
No looking back: Yokohama F. Marinos midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, who played overseas for several seasons, says he has no regrets about the way his career has gone. AP

The Yokohama F. Marinos midfielder is one of hundreds of players getting ready to return to action this weekend, six weeks after the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's northeast coast and cast the new J. League campaign into limbo with only one round of games played.

Nakamura, however, is more than just another player. A legend in Japanese soccer with 98 caps to his name and a bulging medal collection from four gilded years in Scotland with Celtic, Nakamura returned to Marinos early last season to see out his playing days at the club where it all began.

If that suggests a career of unfettered success, however, the reality is somewhat different. Last year's demotion from national team linchpin to World Cup bench-warmer was just the latest in a series of disappointments for a player who has inspired as many naysayers as disciples, and marked a cruel end to an international career that never had the chance to truly flourish on the biggest stage.

For all the setbacks, however, Nakamura's enthusiasm remains as strong as ever.

"Since the earthquake, everyone has been collecting money and doing other things to help," he said at Marinos' training ground earlier this week. "The fixture schedule changed after we had played only one game, and that has made it difficult to keep in good condition. So after all that, I'm glad that the J. League is about to restart. After everything that has happened, I want to help bring a bit of good news to people and give them something to enjoy."

Having retired from the national team after the World Cup, that enjoyment will have to come from watching Nakamura wear the blue of Yokohama alone.

"Now I only have to play in the J. League, and at my age that makes it easier to stay in shape," the 32-year-old said. "In the past, when I was in Italy or Scotland, it took a long time to come back to Japan by plane and it left me tired. Now I can concentrate only on Marinos and my family.

"Marinos was the club that I belonged to and supported when I was young, so coming back here only makes me happy."

But Nakamura's return to Yokohama last February was not quite so simple. An expected transfer after leaving Celtic in the summer of 2009 failed to materialize when he instead accepted an offer from Spanish side Espanyol, finally arriving at Marinos eight months later when it became clear that his failure to make an impact in La Liga was jeopardizing his place on the national team.

"Transferring from one club to another is not an easy process, so what happens happens," he said. "I didn't play so many games in Spain and I wasn't able to show what I could do in that half-year. But it would be a waste not to use that experience, and in that sense it was a very important time for me. I don't wish that I had come direct from Scotland to Marinos, because going to Spain was a valuable experience."

The price he would ultimately pay for that experience, however, was his starting place in Japan's World Cup team. With Nakamura struggling for form and fitness and the national team heading to South Africa on the back of a string of poor results, manager Takeshi Okada took drastic action in the weeks leading up to the tournament.

A tactical reshuffle meant Nakamura was consigned to the bench, and he stayed there for all but the final 26 minutes of Japan's first-round defeat to the Netherlands. Having been left out of the 2002 World Cup squad and failing to do himself justice in 2006, the impact was devastating.

"I don't know if disappointed is the word," he said. "I didn't expect it — I didn't even play. It felt like my whole world had collapsed. But it was just one more experience for me, and I wanted the team to do well so I knew I had to get over it and do what I could. But it was disappointing."

Players with a weaker mentality would have crumbled in the same situation, but Nakamura has suffered enough disappointment to know that there is always a way back.

"When you are lacking in something, you have to be humble enough to recognize that," he said. "For example, if I'm playing well and the manager substitutes me, rather than think 'this guy doesn't know what he's doing,' I'm the type to ask myself 'What is it that I haven't done well enough?'

"At the World Cup it was the same. I thought about what it was that I wasn't doing well enough and what I would have to do to overcome that.

"It's about the ability to take a good look at yourself and see where you're going wrong. Of course there are times when that doesn't work, but it all depends on how you reflect on what has happened and use it to move upward. That's a habit I've had since long ago."

Having now entered the final phase of his career, Nakamura certainly has plenty to reflect on.

"There is nothing that I wish I had done differently," he said. "Maybe I should have gone to Spain instead of Italy when I first went to Europe. But I've given my all in everything I've done, and if something didn't work, then I thought about why it went wrong. But I've got no regrets."



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