The original Japanese Bhoy signs for Celtic…after a dramatic draw at Fir Park on the opening day of the 2005-06 season and the horror showing against Artmedia Bratislava…
As one local player staked his claim for a place in Gordon Strachan’s Parkhead revolution, another footballer from the other side of the world watched that Motherwell game from the stands, whilst a third man was en route from the Far East to Glasgow’s East End. Celtic’s scouting network had taken the Orient Express to land Japanese playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura and Chinese national captain Du Wei, a central defender.
They would go on to have vastly different careers at Celtic.
Shunsuke Nakamura had also cut his international teeth in a World Youth Cup, this time the Malaysian finals of 1997. He scored an early goal as the Japanese beat Costa Rica 6-2, securing his team’s passage from a group also containing Spain and Paraguay. Japan would go on to beat Australia in the Last 16, before succumbing to an extra-time defeat by Ghana.
At that same quarter-final stage, Uruguay would beat a French side boasting Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Nicolás Anelka 7-6 on penalty kicks. Former Celtic coach Damien Duff had scored an extra-time winner for the Republic of Ireland in their Last 16 tie against Morocco, the Irish then memorably beating Spain before losing 1-0 to an Argentina side including the wonderful Joan Roman Riquelme and Pablo Aimar in the semi-final.
The Argentines would beat neighbours Uruguay in the final – a rematch of the first World Cup Final – whilst Duff would again produce a winner in the play-off with Ghana, to secure an excellent bronze medal for Ireland.
On his return from Malaysia, Shunsuke signed for Yokohama F Marinos, a club from his birthplace, owned by Nissan Motors and where he had commenced his early career as a youth. In February 2000, he was given his international debut by Philippe Troussier, later being named Most Valuable Player in the J-League. He was an ever-present as Japan won the Asian Cup in Lebanon that October, before falling out of favour with Troussier after a crushing 5-0 defeat from the coach’s home country.
Despite regaining his place shortly before the 2002 World Cup, to be held in his native Japan and South Korea, a combination of injury and competition for places saw Shunsuke miss out on a dream appearance.
A disillusioned Nakamura then decided to ply his trade abroad and despite interest from Real Madrid, his next destination was Italy’s Serie A with newly-promoted Reggina. A productive first season there, where his goals and assists were vital in ‘gli amaranto’ retaining its top-flight status, was capped by a strong performance in the 2003 Confederations Cup, held in France.
Nakamura’s double in the Stade de France helped the Japanese to a 3-0 first-game victory over New Zealand, the playmaker on target again in his side’s 2-1 defeat by the hosts in St Etienne. Injury caused him to miss the single-goal defeat to Colombia, which marked the end of Japan’s participation, however, his three goals were enough to earn him the Bronze Boot behind Thierry Henry and Turkey’s Tuncay, missing out on the Silver award by a solitary assist.
The tournament will be remembered for the saddest of reasons, as Olympique Lyonnais star Marc-Vivien Foe, at that time on loan to Manchester City, collapsed and died on his home pitch during Cameroon’s semi-final victory over Colombia, the same Stade de Gerland in Lyon where Henrik Larsson had suffered a horrific double leg-break four years earlier. In a lovely tribute, Foe was posthumously awarded the Bronze Ball, Henry and Tuncay again filling the top two places.
An injury-plagued domestic 2003/04 season concluded on a high, Nakamura voted the Most Valuable Player as Japan retained the Asian Cup in China, beating their hosts and fierce rivals 3-1 in the final. Nakamura now sported the famous No.10 jersey once worn by his new national coach, the Brazilian superstar Zico.
Lining up against him in Beijing was future Celt Zheng Zhi. He would succeed Du Wei as national captain and become the second Chinese player to sign for Celtic, making his debut at Ibrox under Tony Mowbray in a 2-1 defeat in October 2009. Incredibly, the then 38-year-old Zhi was still the captain of China and earning his 108th cap in the 2019 Asian Cup held in the United Arab Emirates, whilst I was over there training for the Tokyo Marathon and sharing a hotel with a Celtic squad, as it transpired enjoying their own winter training camp in the final weeks of the Brendan Rodgers regime.
Zheng Zhi opened his country’s 2004 account from the spot in the opening 2-2 draw with Bahrain, whilst Shunsuke Nakamura did likewise with the only goal against Oman, the Japanese playmaker then scoring the equaliser in their second game, a 4-1 win over Thailand.
Zheng went one better with a late penalty double in China’s 3-0 quarter-final victory over Iraq, whilst Nakamura surprisingly missed the first shootout spot kick then heaved a sigh of relief as Japan edged past Jordan by 4-3.
Zheng converted the opening penalty as China won their semi-final by the same margin against Iran, however, the Final say went to Nakamura, a man-of-the-match performance securing a third Asian title for Japan. A third future Celtic star was also on the scoresheet in this competition, stocky defender Cha Du-ri plying his trade with his hometown team Eintracht Frankfurt, thus becoming the first player to represent South Korea having not been born in the country.
His moment of glory came in first-half stoppage time in the final group game against Kuwait, the third in a 4-0 victory to secure qualification.
Nakamura started his third season on Italy’s ‘big toe’ under a fifth coach, Walter Mazzarri, his only two goals of 2004/05 both securing vital 1-0 wins, as Reggina escaped relegation by just two points. Frustrated by constant managerial change and annual survival dogfights, he sought a move elsewhere.
First though, there was the small matter of the 2005 Confederations Cup, to be held in Germany, Japan again representing Asia in their role as continental champions. The hosts featured future Celt Andreas Hinkel, plus a young defender who had a trial at Celtic Park under Martin O’Neill in July 2000, before joining Aston Villa from Bayern Munich’s youth academy, Thomas Hitzlsperger.
‘Der Hammer’ would go on to have a fine career in the Midlands then with Vfb Stuttgart, winning the Bundesliga and 52 senior caps. He appeared in the home World Cup of 2006 – where the Germans took bronze – then Euro 2008, when they lost to Spain in the final in Vienna, Hitzlsperger missing the final cut for the 2010 squad. Following less productive spells at Lazio, West Ham, Wolfsburg and Everton, he retired in 2013, later becoming the highest-profile professional footballer yet to ‘come out’ as gay.
In the Germans’ group was Australia, featuring former Celtic striker, Mark Viduka, by then approaching his 30th birthday and playing at Middlesbrough. His tournament would comprise only the second half of the 4-2 defeat by Argentina in Nuremberg, then the first half of a 2-0 loss to Tunisia in Leipzig.
Japan were paired with World Champions Brazil in Group B. They got off to the worst possible start as Mexico came back from a goal down to win 2-1 in Hanover, Nakamura substituted after an hour with the sides locked at 1-1. However, they bounced back immediately with a single-goal victory over Greece in Frankfurt, Nakamura turning in a man-of-the-match performance before leaving the field in the last minute.
He took the star man honours again in the final group game against the Brazilians in Cologne, Nakamura scoring the first equaliser as the Japanese fought back twice for a 2-2 draw, the Blue Dragons losing out on qualification to the brilliant South American stars only on goal difference.
With Japan’s interest in the Confederations Cup over, Nakamura weighed up his options. New Celtic manager Gordon Strachan had been impressed with the performances of the Japanese playmaker in Germany and, despite interest from the Bundesliga, Spain, Italy and England, Strachan would win the prized signature, and for less than half the reported £2.5m fee.
Over the next few seasons, that would be up there with the Larsson deal in terms of value for money. It also raised the profile of the club in his native Japan beyond all expectations, as I observed first-hand on a visit there. Now 44 years of age, Shunsuke Nakamura is still playing in the Japanese top-flight with hometown club Yokohama FC, a wonderful footballer, respected, revered and adored by supporters from Tokyo to Tollcross.
Whilst Du Wei would be an observer from the stand as Strachan’s Celtic played their first game after the European elimination by Artmedia Bratislava – a home League fixture with Dundee United on Saturday, 6 August 2005 – and would remain on the first-team sidelines for some time, Shunsuke Nakamura would hit the ground running…and then some. His debut that sunny day is a JFK moment for me, the Japanese midfielder quite scintillating, a joy to watch for myself and the other 56,000-plus supporters in the ground. His sublime touches enabled Celtic to dominate a United side featuring future Bhoys Mark Wilson and Barry Robson, Parkhead striker John Hartson powering through on the half-hour to score his fourth League goal in two games and send the Hoops in 1-0 ahead at the interval.
The crossbar then prevented Celtic’s Welsh Dragon from making it two successive hat-tricks, twice United keeper Derek Stillie stranded as Hartson headers bounced back into play from his goalframe. The debutant Nakamura saved his own piece de resistance until later on, a stunning free-kick which was screaming into the ‘wrong’ corner before Stillie stretched out a fingertip to touch it around the post.
With six minutes remaining, the Japanese genius left the field to a well-deserved standing ovation. He was replaced by Craig Beattie, the young striker then firing in a superb volley from fellow-substitute Shaun Maloney’s flighted cross to clinch the match at 2-0 with just two minutes remaining.
This would prove to be a turning point in Gordon Strachan’s first season at Celtic Park.
Follow Matt on Twitter @Boola_vogue
David Potter’s new book, Willie Fernie – Putting on the Style is featured in the new edition of the Celtic View which is out now and available from the Celtic Stores. You can also pick up the Willie Fernie book there too or order direct from Celtic Star Books, link below…