Nakata responded with silence off the field and by blowing away expectations on it — starting with two goals in a 4-3 loss to champions Juventus on the opening day of the season. The Wizards rookie has been solid in his first year, starting all 33 games he has appeared in. Don Newcombe, the hard-throwing Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who was one of the first black players in the major leagues and who went on to win the rookie of the year, Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards, has died. However, upon moving abroad to pursue a career in the United States, the basketball player had to apply for American citizenship or duo citizenship to be a national of both Japan and the United States. Suzuki has the most major league hits of any Japanese-born player (2,742) and has a shot at reaching 3,000; Kuroda has a career earned run average of 3.40, the lowest of any Japanese pitcher with at least 100 starts in the major leagues; and Tanaka, is, well, Tanaka.
And why did a player whose evident love of the game changed perceptions of football in Asia give it all up? After six months, his love for the game faded, and he made his secret pact to retire. New Zealand cruised through the group stage in Oceania qualifying, winning all six games. England end their SheBelieves Cup campaign with just three points from three games after losing 1-0 to Spain in Dallas. Despite losing 1-0 in that match (and succumbing to one-goal losses in both the other group games) the debutants became favorites among neutrals for their classy, ball-down, passing play and desire to take games to vastly more experienced opponents — typified by Nakata. But the judge was unmoved, telling the defendants their moral beliefs were “not a get out jail free card.” Rice was sentenced to three years in prison and Walli and Oertje-Obed each received more than five years. The fans, the media, his teammates: no-one managed to get behind the dark designer sunglasses. No-one understood why — at the end of a hard-fought defeat to reigning champions Brazil, which meant early elimination for Japan — the usually stoic Nakata lay down on the turf at the Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion and wouldn’t get up.
He repeated that feat in the World Cup warm-up clash at the Stade de France, and he looks set to offer France creativity off the bench to unlock defences that are proving hard to break down. Heading into the last 15 minutes, the host nation had struggled to break through, but led 1-0 thanks to a reflex strike from substitute midfielder Hiroake Morishima. In the final stretch of the 2000-01 season, he helped Roma come from 2-0 down against a Zinedine Zidane-inspired Juve, scoring a spectacular strike before another long-range attempt led to the equalizer. When fellow replacement Daisuke Ichikawa broke down the right and floated a high ball toward the back post, Nakata, with a sharp header, sent Japan through at the top of the group. His next two World Cup finals would take him from that highest high to the lowest low. Having crossed the world looking for answers, he’s finding them closer to home.
The one-time Calvin Klein underwear model who, for years, fought to escape his native country’s media, has returned home with the aim to visit each of Japan’s 47 prefectures, hoping to reconnect with the “real” people he is getting to know. His performances for Japanese J-League club Bellmare, and five goals for the national team in qualification for Japan’s historic first World Cup, had demonstrated a strong dribbling game and knack for ghosting into the penalty area to score goals. Like Beckham, the hairstyles are now more restrained — the attention-demanding red spikes are long gone — and like the English superstar, his reputation continues to extend far beyond his home country: both as Japan’s most gifted footballing export and an ambassador for Tokyo’s fashion industry. In his time away, Nakata — now 37 — appears to have resolved some of the contradictions that once made him the misunderstood man of Asia’s rising footballing generation. Like, why did the flamboyantly dressed star — followed wherever he went by battalions of newly galvanized Japanese soccer fans and screeching admirers, a man who led the first generation of sports stars to share their lives on the internet — plead so strongly for privacy?
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