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JFA Website Special

Great talents sometimes mature late. Take Kengo Nakamura, for example. The 29-year-old Kawasaki Frontale midfielder won his first call-up to the Japan national team under Ivica Osim three months after the 2006 World Cup. Since then, his silky skills have made him a regular for the Samurai Blue.
Unlike some, the native of west Tokyo was not a standout performer at school and, he says, he never imagined being involved in a World Cup campaign.
Since his professional debut for Frontale in March 2003, Kengo has grown into the job, not only as a member of his J. League team, but also for Japan. His form was a major factor in Frontale finishing second in the league in 2006, 2008 and 2009, and reaching the quarterfinals of the AFC Champions League in 2007 and 2009. Last year, Nakamura was on the short list for the AFC Player of the Year award.
Kengo Nakamura talks to JFA Web about his career, his thoughts on playing for his country and his hopes for the World Cup.

Q: How did it feel to start the World Cup year as a Japan player?
It felt a little strange. The World Cup was a tournament I always watched on television, and this was the first time for me to be involved in the qualifiers. I never thought I would be playing in the game that clinched our World Cup spot. If I had been able to meet myself from four years ago and told myself all about that, I would have said: “You must be joking!” A few months have passed since we qualified and we now know who we will play in the finals, so it feels like it’s getting closer to reality.

Q: Do you remember when you first knew about the World Cup?
I have followed the World Cup since 1986. I was 6 years old when I first saw it on television, but remember that [Diego] Maradona put on a great performance. I also watched the tournament in 1990 and 1994, and followed Japan’s qualifiers and remember the “Tragedy of Doha,” which I watched on television. I collapsed when I saw the final result. It was awful. I never thought I would have a chance to be there myself.

<JFA Web 2010 World Cup Special>~ Talking to Japan's players ~ Kengo Nakamura: The Thinking Man’s Footballer Q: Are there any matches or players you remember from previous World Cups?
Roberto Baggio in 1994. He was so cool even when he missed the penalty in the shootout in the final. He drew more attention than the winners Brazil. Also, Franco Baresi returned to the game after suffering a big injury during the tournament. It was really impressive.
I also remember France 1998, as Japan played in the tournament for the first time. The semifinal between Brazil and the Netherlands was really enjoyable. I was a student at the time, so I taped the matches and watched them – over and over sometimes – when I found the time.
As for the 2002 tournament that Japan co-hosted, I watched the games with my teammates at our college dormitory, but I didn’t feel the tournament was so special, because no one played in Tokyo.

Q: So did the 2006 tournament have a bigger impact?
Yes, it was the first tournament after I became a J. League player, and it featured players I played against in the J. League, but I still didn’t think I’d be there one day.
After Osim became Japan coach, my teammate [Kazuki] Ganaha was called up to the squad and that made me think: “Could I also have a chance? He’s watching us.” That was when I first thought about the Japan national team. In reality, I was more focused on doing well with Frontale, but it got me thinking that it would be nice to be called up to the national team one day.

Q: You didn’t particularly stand out at high school or college, so what were your thoughts about playing at that time?
I've liked football since I was a child, and felt it was what I wanted to do. I told myself I wanted to be a professional player – but without much conviction.
So, I just worked hard every day in training and in games until I was satisfied with what I was doing. Then, after reaching a certain stage or level, you always found something to work on, some small details. I always thought about how I could improve on various things and worked on those things I thought were important. And that has brought me this far. I just wanted to do my best in football, which I love.

Q: Has it been the same since you were small?
When I was at primary school, I was good at playing to some extent. But I was physically small, so I thought about ways of overcoming this. If I’d been big enough not to have worried about this, I wouldn’t have been able to become what I am today.
As I knew I couldn’t do much about my physical size, I figured I should work on those things I could control – improving skills in small details such as positioning or receiving the ball. Because I couldn’t play how I wanted, I just wanted to overcome my shortcomings and be able to do certain things.

Q: Did you ask any advice from your coaches at school?
Not really. What they did basically was to give me freedom as far as my playing style was concerned; they didn’t force me to do this or that. They let me do what I wanted, and if that didn’t work, then they gave me some tips.
That is why thinking about my own play over and over has become a habit for me. They also taught us that football is fun, which is important, especially when you are small. I am thankful to all the people I’ve encountered along the way, as they helped me get this far.

<JFA Web 2010 World Cup Special>~ Talking to Japan's players ~ Kengo Nakamura: The Thinking Man’s Footballer Q: So, does being a national team player spur you on?
Absolutely, and it involves competition within the team as well. It’s good training and it’s good playing against strong players who I usually face in the J. League. They push me and make me think how I can develop my game more. That makes it fun, but I wouldn’t have noticed this significance if I hadn’t become a national team player.

Q: Do you remember your debut match for Japan?
Yes, it was the game against Ghana in October 2006, a friendly. There were a lot of photographers around our bench and a famous singer sang the national anthem. Before, I’d only seen all this on television.
When we have the national anthem before the game, it always makes me realize that I am Japanese. Even when the tuning is a little off in some away games, I like that. I sing along, trying to be careful about the tune (laughs). Maybe I have a fresher and stronger feeling about representing Japan because I have less experience playing for my country than other players.

Q: What do you think you have gained from playing for Japan?
Joining the nation’s top team makes you feel really good and brings you a lot of confidence. Since I have a shorter period of time to play at the top level, I believe I have to develop my game further. I can find what I need to develop my game playing against different types of opponents at the highest level. So, I want to play more against different opponents. I find that really interesting.

Q: So, the World Cup will be a good place for you to be?
Well, it’s going to be tough. But I think we have a chance if we can fully show what we are capable of. My desire to be part of it and play for Japan is very strong. It’s a big tournament and a big challenge in one’s life.
Before that, I have to win a place on the team, which is not so easy as we have so many good players in midfield. But you can reach the World Cup only as a result of the hard work you put in.
As our time with the national team is limited, I think we should work hard with our own teams, while keeping in mind what we are doing with the national team. How strongly we can maintain that awareness will be very important for all of us. If you can’t do things in the [league] matches, you won’t be able to do them at the national team level. We should all work on our abilities, otherwise we won’t improve.
There’s no place like the Japan team. It’s the pinnacle of Japanese football, and you have a chance to play in the World Cup. The current squad is very good. We have a good relationship between the players, like you get at club level. They know when to work hard and when to relax, too.
I want to show the good parts of my game at the World Cup; if I don’t, there’s no point in being there.

(Interview and text by Kumi Kinohara, sports journalist)



Profile ----Kengo Nakamura----

Kengo Nakamura Born in Tokyo October 31, 1980. Stands 175 cm, weighs 66 kg. Started football at kindergarten. After graduation from Chuo University in 2003, joined Kawasaki Frontale as an apprentice. Made J. League debut on March 15 that year against Sanfrecce Hiroshima in a Division Two match. Scored his first career goal on April 9, 2003, against Montedio Yamagata. In 2004, helped Frontale win promotion to Division One. Frontale finished second in J1 in 2006, 2008 and 2009. Named to the J. League Bext XI for four consecutive years (2006-2009). Has played in 290 matches, scoring 48 goals(domestic league and tournaments). First called up to Japan team by Ivica Osim and made debut on October 4, 2006, against Ghana in a friendly. Now has 45 caps and has scored five goals for Japan (as of February 15, 2010).