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Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012

Frontale counting on Nakamura to fill leadership role

Staff writer

KAWASAKI — An 11th-place finish last season suggests Kawasaki Frontale's days as a J. League championship contender are over, but playmaker Kengo Nakamura is refusing to go quietly as the club prepares for another tilt at a first-ever title.

News photo
Reliable: Kawasaki Frontale midfielder Kengo Nakamura was a surprise recall to the national team for the World Cup qualifiers last fall. KYODO

Frontale went into last year's campaign having finished each of the previous five seasons in the top five, claiming the runnerup spot three times to establish themselves firmly among the division's heavyweights. But a rash of high-profile departures and the arrival of rookie manager Naoki Soma hinted that 2011 would be a year of transition, and so it proved as a run of eight straight defeats over the summer derailed the Kanagawa club's title challenge.

Now, with long-serving striker Juninho leaving over the winter, Frontale's prospects look anything but clear. More responsibility than ever will rest on the shoulders of midfield inspiration Nakamura, and the 31-year-old admits he is unsure what to expect.

"Last year we finished 11th, but this season we're setting our sights high and our target is to win the title," Nakamura said at the club's training ground on Friday. "We have a lot of new players. We have three new Brazilians, and as we've only had a few days of training we don't know how they're going to turn out yet. But if they fit in well, I think we will have an interesting team."

Without Juninho around to put the ball in the net, such doubts are understandable. The Brazilian scored 175 league goals in nine years at Frontale before being picked up by Kashima Antlers last month, and Nakamura knows he will be difficult to replace.

"I joined the club at the same time as Juninho, and we were here together for nine years," he said. "Frontale without Juninho is something that I don't know. He has been the focal point of the attack for the past nine years, so I think we will really feel his absence at first. But we have some good new players coming in and there is no point in thinking about the ones who have left."

At least the presence of Soma gives Frontale some continuity going into the new campaign. Last season was the former national team defender's first as a J. League manager, and Nakamura is certain the man he once played with will go from strength to strength as he gains more experience in his new profession.

"This is only his third year as a manager," Nakamura said. "Last year was his first in the J. League, and before that he started his career in the JFL with Machida Zelvia. "So he doesn't have a huge wealth of experience as a manager, but he is learning all the time and he is trying to communicate better with the players. I think he has become much more flexible."

After making a triumphant comeback to the national team last year, perhaps Frontale can draw inspiration from Nakamura's own personal return to the elite. The midfielder was passed over for January's Asian Cup victory as manager Alberto Zaccheroni gave younger players their chance, but an injury to Keisuke Honda paved the way for a starring role in the autumn World Cup qualifiers as Japan booked its place in the fourth and final round.

"To be honest, when I wasn't called up for the Asian Cup and they won the title, I thought it would be difficult to get back in the squad," he said. "I could understand the need to bring in new players four years ahead of the World Cup, and I accepted it. It was the manager's decision.

"I wasn't called up for the Asian Cup or the Kirin Cup games in the summer, and then I was called up for the World Cup qualifiers. So to be called up for such important games as the team's playmaker made me very happy. I wasn't called up just to make up the numbers. I knew I had to stand up and play my part."

That part also included a trip to Pyongyang in November, as Japan traveled to the North Korean capital for the first time since 1989. The politically charged atmosphere inside the Kim Il Sung Stadium made for a match like no other, and even though Nakamura regrets the 1-0 defeat, he appreciated the experience.

"I've played for the national team in a lot of places, but that was the first time that I had ever felt like it was a real away game," he said. "Not just in the stadium, but as soon as we arrived in North Korea. On the pitch, though, football is football. They started attacking, and we needed to be calm and ride it out to have a chance of winning.

"But I had never thought I would go there, and it was a very valuable experience in my life. It's something that I will always remember."

Playing for a European club, however, is an experience that Nakamura has yet to sample. Time is running out for a player who graduated from university before turning professional with Frontale, but the lure of overseas is tempered by the pull of home.

"I think it's only natural as a player that you want to try playing overseas," he said. "I was quite a late starter, especially compared to players nowadays. Now players go to Europe while they are still in their teens, but that's something I could never have thought about.

"On the one hand part of me can never even think of playing for another club, and to retire having only played for Frontale wouldn't be a bad thing. But part of me also wants to see what playing abroad would be like."

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