Whether it’s for his jaw-dropping exploits in one of Celtic’s strongest sides or his dazzling displays for Japan, how could you not love Shunsuke Nakamura?
I’ll always have a strong sense of nostalgia for anything and everything connected to the 2002 FIFA World Cup. As a soon-to-be football mad seven-year-old who saw the tournament kick-off on his birthday (what a birthday present that is, eh?) the tournament had just about everything us football fans could ask for…
Stunning, spaceship-looking stadia; jaw-dropping goals; horrendous refereeing decisions (if you’re still wondering how the hell South Korea made it to the semis, some serious corruption is almost certainly the answer, but this is heresy and hereby inadmissible in a court of law) and upsets upon upsets upon upsets (here’s looking at you, Senegal) …
Oh, and some of the world’s biggest footballing superstars strutting their stuff on the game’s biggest stage, of course! You had Zidane, Figo, Owen, R9 (more on that legend here) and his attention-grabbing haircut, and, of course, David Beckham (who went on to revolutionise an entire league single-handedly years on from this ground-breaking tournament), with that blonde Mohican and those “champagne” predators.
Unfortunately, Japan’s very own Beckham, Shunsuke Nakamura, had been left out of the national side’s squad for his “home” World Cup. It was an inauspicious absence that could have caused some to question Nakamura’s potential.
Which, given what he went on to do at Celtic a few years later, is astonishing.
Beginning his career at hometown club Yokohama Marinos in 1997, Nakamura was raising eyebrows across Japan within a year of his debut. A nimble attacking midfielder, Nakamura bagged plenty of goals, created even more, and was branded one of the J. League’s most skilful young talents.
Unsurprisingly, European clubs began to circle like vultures to compete for the youngster’s signature. Specifically, Atalanta, Napoli and – wait for it – Real Madrid! Keen to reclaim his place in the national side following his aforementioned omission from the World Cup, Nakamura chose Serie A’s newly-promoted Reggina; with first team involvement at the forefront of his decision-making process.
He hit the ground running, too, putting in a number of eye-catching performances and proving many of his doubters wrong. But a string of injuries and a typically Italian revolving door of managers slowed Shunsuke Nakamura’s progress. As such, when he arrived at Gordan Strachan’s Celtic after three so-so years in Italy, many fans had good reason to raise a quizzical eyebrow at the board’s decision-making.
But like many cult heroes, Shunsuke Nakamura made an immediate impact. A standing ovation and the man of the match trophy on his debut preceded a successful maiden season that saw Celtic clinch both the league and League Cup titles.
Further successes were soon to follow, too…
A free-kick specialist, Nakamura cemented his place in Celtic fans’ hearts with an absolutely stunning 30-yard worldie against Manchester United. When it comes to pulling off career-best spot-kicks, you might as well do it against one of the world’s biggest clubs, right?
All told, his four seasons in Scotland saw Nakamura lift six titles and bag a respectable 34 goals (including both this title-winning beauty against Kilmarnock, and this absolute screamer against Old Firm rivals Rangers).
I mean, seriously… Look at those strikes! Unless you’re a Killie, Rangers or United fan (sorry Dev!) those are the kind of wonder goals every football fan can get behind, right?
Nakamura left Celtic Park in 2009 as a true icon. Which, for a club with as illustrious a history as Celtic’s, is really saying something! A lacklustre season at Espanyol followed before two spells at his first club Yokohama Marinos (now more simply called Yokohama FC).
Amazingly, now at the ripe-old age of 42(!), Nakamura is still putting in the kind of shifts that many a young up-and-comer could only dream of delivering as he continues to tear up the J. League with Yokohama. While he never reached the superstar heights of some of his peers, Shunsuke Nakamura is, without doubt, one of the Scottish game’s true cult heroes.