From the rubble to the Ritz for Japan's Nakamura.




THE Shunsuke Nakamura who ripped off his Celtic shirt and jumped into the crowd at Kilmarnock last month had come a long way from the awkward youth of a decade ago. Nakamura had just scored the goal that secured Celtic a second straight Scottish Premier League (SPL) title and subsequently finished the season as Scotland's double player of the year.
As he accepted his Football Writers' award at the weekend, the black-suited Nakamura was unrecognisable from the nervous youngster who had taken Japan by storm in the late 1990s but struggled to speak to foreign journalists.

His crowd-diving antics were a world apart, too, from the 2000 Asian Cup, when the midfielder grumbled about having to speak to reporters at all, let alone overseas media.

At the Lebanon tournament seven years ago, the Japan team had to train on a pitch surrounded by bombed-out slums used to shelter Hezbollah fighters.

As Israeli war jets buzzed overhead, none of the players looked more nervous than Nakamura – then a scrawny 22-year-old with little to offer other than a cultured left foot.

On a pitch hemmed in by crumbling buildings and strewn dangerously with rubble and twisted metal, Nakamura already stood out as a potentially world-class player.

Japan's then coach Philippe Troussier, however, thought Nakamura too much of a luxury player and was less than impressed with his unadventurous spirit off the pitch in Beirut. “With Nakamura and most of the others, if I left a naked woman tied to their bed for them, they would run from the room screaming,” the Frenchman shrugged.

“I told them to go out into the city for dinner but they decided to stay in and play computer games. They have no sense of adventure.”

Troussier ultimately decided he could not afford to risk selecting Nakamura for the 2002 World Cup and abruptly discarded him from his squad, preferring the more robust Mitsuo Ogasawara and causing a public outcry.

Nakamura himself responded simply: “It's made me more determined to work harder.”
A frustrating spell at Italy's Reggina followed but fast forward to 2007 and Nakamura has shaken off the luxury player tag and become the heartbeat of Celtic.

He was voted Scotland's Players' Player of the Year last month after becoming the first Japanese to win back-to-back titles in Europe.

The pout has been replaced by a wide smile and the player, now 28, is always ready to share a joke with journalists – in stark contrast to former Japan team-mate Hidetoshi Nakata.
Even during Japan's disastrous 2006 World Cup campaign, Nakamura was one of the first to stand up and take the flak, refusing to hide or make excuses.

Nakamura scored nine goals in 35 SPL games this season and one of his trademark free kicks gave Celtic a 1-0 Champions League win over Manchester United, securing a place in the knockout stages.

“That was the highlight of my season,” said Nakamura. “Not because it was me who scored it but because it was more important we got into the last 16.”

Wise words from a player Troussier feared might never grow up yet who now has English Premier League clubs queuing up to try to lure him away from Celtic Park.
Watching Nakamura tearing off his shirt and piling into the crowd at Kilmarnock, the abiding impression was that the boy had finally become a man.





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