Hidetoshi Nakata: Not One For A Busman’s Holiday

The definition of a busman’s holiday is “free time spent in much the same pursuit as one’s work.” In a comedic context, a fantastic example is played out during the first Gavin & Stacey Christmas special. As the character Dave Coaches takes a break from driving a bus from Barry Island to Billericay, he stops for a rest at a service station to sit in an arcade chair and steer virtual cars around a race track. “Sorry, I just needed a break from the driving you know?” The gag being, clearly, that taking a break from long-distance driving to drive a virtual car as some sort of recreational recess is absurd.

The idea of a plumber spending upwards of forty hours a week knocking about under a pensioner’s sink only to go home and tinker with their own toilet cistern for fun is ludicrous. Checking in with an old friend from university, a senior accountant at Deloitte, to find they’re tucked up in bed aimlessly scrolling the HMRC website to help them unwind after a long day would be almost unthinkable. So why does it come as such a startling surprise when we as football fans discover our idols on the pitch have a plethora of interests off it?

While most footballers post-1992 can’t go about their hobbies off-duty with relative anonymity or free from public scrutiny, they do have the platform and finances to further their outside interests to greater heights. The majority opt to venture into the fashion industry, designing or collaborating on their own lines of clothing – ironic, considering the majority’s propensity for awful jeans. But perhaps no example of diverse and varied interests is better than the first Japanese footballing superstar.

Hidetoshi Nakata, dubbed ‘The David Beckham of Asia’, was an early beacon of hope for Asian football – propelling his national team to their first World Cup finals appearance in 1998. Nakata went one better four years later in their home tournament as the Blue Samurai topped Group G to reach the last-16, the midfield creator was the metronomic creative heartbeat for a particularly green Japanese side. During the 1998 qualifying campaign, Nakata was integral to his side reaching their first World Cup finals, amassing 11 appearances, scoring five goals and assisting all three in their crucial 3-2 playoff victory over Iran.

With a penchant for getting noticed, Nakata opted to dye his hair a striking blonde for the 1998 finals in an attempt to make himself recognisable to European scouts. This bold strategy paid dividends almost instantly, Peruggia snapping him up within weeks of the finals ending. As the only Japanese international plying his trade in Europe at the time, Brand Nakata was gathering steam back home. While he began to dominate in Serie A, his domestic profile was reaching its zenith. The similarities between Nakata and Beckham were visibly apparent on the pitch – both the first name on the international team-sheet, both possessing devastating ability from set-pieces – but just as overt were their similarities off the field, Beckham and Nakata achieving cult status in their homeland.

During his stint in Italy, Nakata shone in Peruggia, helped AS Roma to their first Scudetto in almost two decades and delighted during a brief stint in the violet of Fiorentina. But after a single season playing under Big Sam at Bolton Wanderers, Japan’s sole footballing superstar called time on his playing career amidst a whirlwind of confusion. With no immediate injury problems, the decision to quit football was met with shock and surprise by both fans and media in the far-east – but for Nakata, he’d simply had enough.

Football for Nakata was one of many passions, a career that afforded him ample opportunities elsewhere to pursue a plethora of other interests. Football for Nakata was not the be-all and end-all – at times, merely a means to an end. “When I was born I was not born to be a football player, I was born to be myself,” he offered during a 2018 interview. “So, football was just my passion. I didn’t see football as my career or as my dream.”

Nakata decided to drop football altogether and pursue other, more eclectic hobbies and career opportunities. Stylish and charismatic on the field, Nakata immediately pivoted from looking for killing balls in the attacking third to looking straight into the camera lens. Within months of hanging up his boots, Nakata was showcasing Calvin Klein boxer shorts on Tokyo billboards. Nakata at times guest edits Monocle, a global-affairs, fashion, lifestyle and culture magazine. Metaphorically, Hidetoshi Nakata isn’t one to shy from having his fingers in many pies.

Football afforded Nakata an opportunity to experience different cultures – to broaden his horizons and world view. At 21 years of age Nakata left Hiratsuka for the Mediterranean. During his time with his club sides and national team, Nakata travelled to and played in Germany, Slovakia, Portugal, England, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Israel, Finland, Oman, India, Iran & Bahrain – to name but a few – picking up an unfathomable amount of passport stamps along the way. Football, as vocations go, brings an unparalleled opportunity to travel the globe. However, while traversing the plains of mainland Europe and making stops in the far reaches of the middle-east through World Cup qualification campaigns, Nakata says he lost touch with his homeland. Punters would try to talk to him about Japan, but he would struggle to keep the conversation flowing – “I had been so busy when I was young that I never had time to discover the country, I really did not know anything about Japan.”

@ZICOBALL

After opting to leave football while at the peak of his abilities, Nakata traversed through his homeland, crisscrossing through all 47 of Japan’s local jurisdictions to meet with farmers, craftsmen and sake-makers on a journey of discovery; a voyage to unearth his next passion.

Today, Nakata heads up a brand of artisanal Japanese sake. While the sake itself can only be found in the most affluent of Asian department stores and restaurants, Nakata is transparent about his intentions for the liquor itself. Nakata is adamant that they “are not a company that makes sake, but a company making a platform for the sake industry.” In addition to crafting an extravagant commodity, and in an effort to further the reach of this traditional Japanese spirit, Nakata’s sake brand has also developed a mobile app – Sakenomy – to help any prospective consumers read labels on sake bottles that would be mostly indecipherable to any non-fluent Japanese speaker, a series of original sakeware and the world’s first minus-five degree sake cellar to sell sake to the masses. It is to be commended that, as with football, modelling, and magazine editing, Hidetoshi Nakata does not do things by halves.

Japanese football has undergone a revolution and revitalisation in the last 30 years. It’s no coincidence that the fortunes of the national team and the sport as a whole within the confines of Japan’s national borders rose in conjunction with the growth of Brand Nakata. To fully embrace the sport ahead of far more popular pastimes, baseball and sumo, the Japanese public needed a superstar to tap into the cultural zeitgeist. In order to be taken seriously in the world of football, Hidetoshi Nakata needed the domestic game to grow exponentially. Japanese football needed Nakata just as much as Nakata needed Japanese football.

So while spectators, pundits and fans alike were robbed of Hidetoshi Nakata at the prime of his career, in essence, his job was done. Hidetoshi Nakata grew the reputation of football in Japan as much with his performances for AS Roma and Parma as his appearances in Nike television adverts and his catwalk presence. To begrudge a man for conquering one sphere, deciding he’s no longer enjoying himself, and moving on to conquer the next is spiteful.

“Stick to football” is one of the banalest phrases in the game, thrown idly around from terraces, armchairs and studio setups at superstars who dare to turn their attentions to something other than shuttle runs and set-piece exercises when off the clock. To unashamedly berate Hector Bellerin for using his spare time to collaborate with Puma to design and photograph his own custom set of Kings, or for recording a releasing a collection of original podcasts known as “More Than A Footballer” is blinkered. On the other end of the scale, and although this may be more politically influenced, castigating Marcus Rashford MBE for his work with FareShare to #EndChildFoodPoverty when he should be focussed on ensuring his attacking link-up play with Anthony Martial is up to scratch is pathetic. To expect anyone, be they plumber, accountant, vet, or professional footballer to focus 100% of their energy 100% of the time on one single entity is innocuous and bereft of any critical thought.

Hidetoshi Nakata is living proof that footballers have the capacity to be more than just a midfield dynamo; more than a burly target man; more than a no-nonsense defender. With enough rope and gumption, any player on the pitch can step over the touchline after the ninety minutes are up, and change the world in any infinite number of ways.

Words by Liam Baxter – @LiamBxtr

Graphics by Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_