Part 2 – Shunsuke Nakamura’s great influence on Japanese football

Shinji Okazaki, legendary player of the Japan national team, influenced by Naka’s words…

After joining Leicester City in 2015, Shinji Okazaki formed ridiculous front 3 with Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, and in 2016 he won EPL League title for the first time in the history of the club’s founding. He has played under Brendan Rodgers, who became Leicester’s manager in February 2019, and now 37 years old, he plays as striker for STVV.

Okazaki was called up for the first time by Japan national team since 2008 and has played with Naka for about 2 years, including the 2010 South African World Cup. And he has been mood maker in the national team since then, and Naka and he had good partnership regardless on/off the pitch.

He has played 119 games for the national team and scored 50 goals, and he’s legendary player who is impossible to exclude when we talk about the Japanese national team. He once revealed to the Japanese media that he was greatly influenced by the book that Naka published in 2008 and sold more than 200,000 copies, but on December 10, 2022, Okazaki talked about the impact of Naka’s words in an interview.

Q. Shunsuke Nakamura played for La Liga in the summer of 2009 after playing in Serie A and Celtic, and returned to the J.League in 2010 at the age of 32, but you are still playing in Europe at the age of 36. Have you ever been praised by Shunsuke about that?

Okazaki: “I’ve never been praised in person by him for that, but I know that Shun san(Shunsuke Nakamura’s nickname often used by Okazaki) respects all players. He really respects all players, not just me, and I think that part of him is really amazing. Shun san decided to leave La Liga in about half a year, so maybe he felt that, “I couldn’t continue playing on that stage.”, but I don’t want him to say that, “I couldn’t do it.” Teams often treat us differently from European players because we are Japanese. We are often treated unfairly by people just because we are Asian, and we face such difficulties. But still, we Japanese players don’t blame our own performance on such an environment, and of course Shun san never do that. That’s why I think Shun san simply admits that his own performance in La Liga was not good.”

Q. It’s also necessary to change your mind in order to survive in Europe, right?

Okazaki: “Yes. However, in fact, his performance in Serie A was outstanding, and his performance in Champion League as Celtic’s player was also amazing. And I don’t think he was inferior to other players in La Liga at all. I love Shun san’s humble personality, but always want him to talk about his own career honestly and confidently. He has also faced some difficult situations in the national team, but he is exactly the legend who has been showing us, “Japanese people can achieve such a great achievement.” through his own performance.”

Q . How did you see Shunsuke at the 2010 South Africa World Cup in the national team?

Okazaki: “It was my first World Cup, so I might have focused on myself. After the World Cup, I had the opportunity to hear from Shun san about that time, but that was the first time I learned about his feelings for the Japan national team. I’ve been playing for the national team for many years, but I regretted that I didn’t play with strong feeling like him. Once again, I respect him from the bottom of my heart.”

Q. When you heard about Shunsuke Nakamura’s retirement, how did you take it?

Okazaki: “At that time, I heard from him that his recovery was not good after his leg surgery. When I learned that he had decided to retire, I felt very lonely. But I thought it was the coolest way to end as much as I could imagine. He has been super cool until the end. Of course, I watched all of his retirement press conference online. His various words touched my heart.”

Q. When did you find out about Shunsuke Nakamura?

Okazaki: “The 2002 World Cup was held when I was in high school, but until then, I had hardly watched anything other than the games I played. Of course, I hardly watched J.League, Japan national team, and European leagues. In fact, it was after 2005 when I became a professional footballer that I started watching various football games in earnest.

“He joined Celtic when I started watching European football games in earnest, so I got to know him just around that time and started to be interested in him. His free kick against Australia at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and another free kick for Celtic against Manchester United in Champions League are particularly impressive.”

Q. You were first called up for Japan national team in 2008, but since you played as starting XI for the first time in 2009, you have played in many games with him. Did he give you any advice?

Okazaki: “I remember a lot of advice from him. In the first game I played as starting Ⅺ, I played as second striker, but to be honest, I was very nervous. At that time, Shun san gently said to me to calm me down. “You can choose simple play without trying to do difficult things.

“If you send the ball to your teammates after receiving the ball, you can run behind the defender. My tension was relieved by him giving me advice. In addition, he also advised me about response to medias in this way. “When you score goals or play active role in a game, it’s important for you to talk about your teammates’ performance, not yourself. Then your teammates will trust you and send you the pass again.”

“I learned from him that not only achieving results on the pitch, but also building relationship of trust with teammates by keeping such things in mind. I was able to notice that it’s the same not only in the national team but also in the club. I felt that these are exactly the proof that Shun san has practiced and succeeded in Europe.”

Q. You joined Stuttgart in 2011, but was Shunsuke Nakamura’s presence big for you?

Okazaki: “Yeah, In addition to Shun san, the presence of players playing in Europe, such as Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto, Naohiro Takahara, Hidetoshi Nakata, and Makoto Hasebe, has been great stimulus to me. I recognize that they are the pioneers who built the base for Japanese to play in Europe.”

Q. In 2010, Shunsuke Nakamura joined Yokohama F. Marinos. What has your interaction been like with him since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa?

Okazaki: “When he came back to J.League, I joined Stuttgart, so I didn’t have a chance to meet him. Therefore, I contacted him and he made an opportunity to eat with me. It was my first time eating with him in private at that time, so I was very nervous.

“But the moment I met him and talked to him, my tension eased. At that dinner, I was just talking about football with him all the time, but it was blissful time for me. Since then, I’ve been seeing him once a year.”

Q. So your friendship with him has been going on for a long time.

Okazaki: “Sure. By the way, in the second season after I joined Stuttgart, he quietly told me that, “You’re going to disappear when you’re 30 years old.””

Q. Why is that?

Okazaki: “Especially he didn’t give me the reason or explanation. I was still in my mid-20s, and I actually thought it would be enough to play until I was 30 years old. But I started to think more and more about the meaning of his words. From that time, I recognized that physical strength was my strength, but of course, the physical aspect gradually declines as get older. And I came to understand later that he warned me that, “You won’t work like this. There is possibility that you will disappear.” After that, I became conscious of improving the parts that I lack, such as technic, thinking, positioning, and the ability to look over from above the situation of the team.”

Q. It’s no exaggeration to say that his words built the current you who are still playing in Europe at 36 years old, right?

Okazaki: “Yes, of course. When I turned 30, I decided to overcome tough situation with keeping those words in my heart. That’s why, at Shun san’s retirement press conference, “Which junior is you respect the most?” In response to the question, it was shock that he answered “Yuto Nagatomo” not me. I still can’t get praise from him. But I take it as encouragement from him, and I will continue to work hard.”

There is no doubt that Okazaki’s performance is driven by Naka’s words. Shunsuke Nakamura has said in an interview that praising is important for growing players, but we can see that he has not only praised players but also given accurate advice to players according to their personality and relationship.


To be continued, Part 3 will be published on Saturday.

Matt Corr’s new book Majic, Stan and the King of Japan is out now and Neil Lennon, the Celtic captain that season, has written the foreword for us.

You can get a signed copy of the hardback version direct from Celtic Star Books by clicking on the image below. It’s also available an an e-book via Amazon Kindle and please note that all colour photographs that appear in the beautifully presented printed hardback book are also available in the Kindle version of Majic, Stan and the King of Japan…

About Author

I am a Content Creator and Origami art Creator, Analyst working for think tank in Japan and I joined this team in May 2023 and started to write articles as Japanese Celtic author for The Celtic Star. I live in Kobe(Japan) and have followed Celtic after 14 October, 2006, when I had watched the game against Dundee United FC - Shunsuke Nakamura scored a hat-trick. Also I am an enthusiastic supporter of Vissel Kobe, and I am familiar with various information and history of J-League. I have been posting threads on trajectory and background of Celtic Japanese players on Twitter mainly since summer of 2022 in order to further deepen the bond between Celtic and Japan. This time, I'm so proud to be more committed to Celtic by joining The Celtic Star team. I'm good at changing of viewpoints, so please expect my articles written from fresh perspective.

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