Extremely talented, incredibly normal

It’s rare to witness a dynasty in Japanese football. There have been, even in recent years, but despite winning titles, they never crushed their opponents every time. Kashima Antlers are the only team in J. League to have won three titles in a row between 2007 and ’09, but they always had to wait the last game to clinch the championship. Almost the same for Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who won only their first title ever in 2012 with one game to go.

The conversation is starting though to become different when we’re talking about Kawasaki Frontale. Like Sanfrecce Hiroshima under Hajime Moriyasu, the club managed by Toru Oniki have just clinched their third J. League title in four years. Nevertheless, there’s something diverse for Frontale: if their first championship in 2017 came on the wire, the other two weren’t even closely contested.

In 2019, Frontale closed the deal for the title with two games to go, after recovering a double digit of points in terms of gap to Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who initially built a gap in the first part of the season. This year, with the pandemic and a close schedule, but no AFC Champions League to play, Kawasaki have just stormed their way to the championship. It’s not the first time we lauded them, but it’s right to remember a couple of numbers.

As we write, Oniki and the boys from Todoroki Stadium clinched the 2020 title with four games to go, by beating Gamba Osaka at home 5-0. They had two outrageous runs of wins – 10 and 11 – throughout the season; they scored 79 goals in 30 games, with three players with 10+ goals and 13 members who scored more than once. They’re on their way to destroy the best point average ever and they have an unimaginable depth in their roster.

For whoever has followed J. League for a long time (even five or plus years would be enough), it’s mesmerizing and bizarre at the same time to have witness such a transformation for Frontale. The same club which always came one step too far from the goal of achieving something is now ruling Japanese football, doing it by upgrading what Yahiro Kazama had built until 2016 and finding a real solidity with Oniki.

And no one would represent better this club and his spirit than Kengo Nakamura. Not only because he’s been always with Frontale: he has seen it all for the club, being even a team-mate of the manager when he was still playing in the mid-2000s. But probably because his majestic approach to football was almost getting no silverware or title recognition and closing his career without those would have been a crime.

A homage by Frontale.

Now, we know: the end credits are scrolling and it’s time to wrap it up. Nakamura has announced a few weeks ago that this is going to be his last season ever. At 40 years old, he understood it was time to go. We don’t know which future will hold for him, but we would ashamedly unfair if we wouldn’t celebrate such a character, a J. League myth for what he has built over the years.

The Frontale man

Class ’80, Nakamura was born in Kodaira, Tokyo, and didn’t make the jump from high school directly to pro-world, something that is becoming common. Instead, Kengo attended Chuo University, where he was a member of the faculty of letters, studying English and American literature. This always hit us, because you get a different background, which then paved the way to J. League.

After being four years at the university, in fact, Nakamura joined Frontale in 2003. At 23 years-old, with the no. 14 and Pep Guardiola as a role model on the pitch, the young Kengo established himself within the starting eleven: the rise of Kawasaki basically coincided with his, reaching J1 in 2005 after crushing the opposition the year before in second division under the guide of Takashi Sekizuka.

It was the manager indeed to push him towards a playmaking role rather than being just a box-to-box midfielder. This let Nakamura flourish even on the biggest stage: with him as the main player and symbol, many things changed. Managers, team members, opponents, but Kawasaki stayed in the top half table for all but one season since re-joining J1 in 2005. In half of the 16 seasons in J1 since that year, Kawasaki have been in the Top 3 in half of them.

In all of this, Nakamura collected many applauses and personal accolades: he was the first Frontale player ever to feature in the Best XI (in ’06, alongside Hiroyuki Taniguchi), he’s third for most appearances in that formation (just behind Yasuhito Endo and Marcus Tulio Tanaka), he played more than 450 games and scored more than 70 goals in just J1, clinching a well-deserved MVP title in 2016 (the oldest player to win this honor).

He was making waves already in the first year.

Yet, the struggles never stopped. Frontale came close to so many titles you probably lost the count: if you consider not just championships, but also cups and continental runs, Kawasaki looked always closely, but not surely capable of winning a title. The embodiment of this bad luck and/or choking attitude came probably at the peak of disappointments for captain Kengo.

Because yes, at 36 he became MVP, but Frontale lost the best chance to win it all they had in years: after being neck-to-neck with Urawa Red Diamonds in the overall table, Kawasaki were second in the first stage and third in the second stage. They had to play then a playoffs game against Kashima Antlers, who ended badly, being defeated before even coming to the final act of now-dead J. League Championship.

If you also add the loss in the 2016 Emperor’s Cup and 2017 J. League Cup finals, Nakamura probably felt tired, beaten up by circumstances. How was it possible – for both him and the squad – to get better and still losing? The tears coming from the no. 14 after falling to Cerezo Osaka in October 2017, just a few minutes following the end of the J. League Cup final, probably let us fear for a doomed faith.

Instead, Frontale had to wait just one month and they met their destiny in a twisted plot: this time, they were the chasers and not the chased ones. Kashima Antlers, who basically dominated the 2017 season, slipped near the finish line, drawing twice in the last two matches. Meanwhile, Kawasaki registered a run of 14 positive results in a row until the end of the season and they overcame the rivals in the table by goal difference.

This clip is one of the most moving about the character. Tatsuya Hasegawa scores the final goal in a 5-0 home win against Omiya Ardija. The time Shota Arai waltzes him on the sideline, fans and staff received the good news from Shizuoka: Antlers drew, Frontale are (finally) the champions. Kengo can’t stand up for a couple of minutes, drowning in tears of joy.

That was the beginning. In 2018, despite a huge initial gap to Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Frontale came back and won the league again, clinching their second title in history. And even when champions crumbled in 2019, coming fourth and gifting the title to Yokohama F. Marinos, Kengo Nakamura was still there. Until a November afternoon risked ending his career before his will.

In a game against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the captain of Frontale faced the rupture of . It seemed over for him: how is he coming back from this? It’s impossible, especially when you’re 39. And in hindsight, he had his run of titles, so he should be good to go… no. Kengo Nakamura didn’t comply with this timeline and fought to come back to the pitch, making it after nine months of harsh work and rehabilitation.

There were not writings on the wall about his comeback; it wasn’t granted to see him back to live this 2020 season. Yet, he did so, just to prove that he could still do it. In style, with his own skills and beliefs, being the light he has always been for Frontale, even by playing less than before. He found his slice of happiness even when he realized the return meant at the same time the story was coming to an end.

A national treasure, an international incognita

Sekizuka’s decision to transform Nakamura in a “regista” – or anyway in an offensive demiurge – worked perfectly for the midfielder. He lived the time of his life and his greatness is all coming from an excellent football-QI, because physically he doesn’t have the speed, the strength or the natural-born talent of others. No, Nakamura crafted his art throughout years, understanding where he could have improved (and he did).

If we may have a comparison, it would be Gonzalo Higuaín. Looking at the striker and his fellow stars in his role – Benzema, Cavani, Lewandoski and Suárez (although the latter is also a second striker) –, would you bet on him to be in the front page of a magazine? The same guy mocked for his poor silhouette and fitness? No, but he did score 338 goals in 725 matches, playing in four of the top five leagues and writing history mostly in Naples.

His comeback from the last year.

Same goes for Kengo. Looking at him, in his thin profile and slender body, would you pick him over other prospects of his time? Maybe you wouldn’t have done it, but here we are, 17 years later from his beginning, witnessing the greatness of a football genius, capable of mastering the art of fantasy – in which you could put almost anything: goals, assists, brilliant plays – for one team in his life, bringing it to the top.

What you might say is that Nakamura lacked the same recognition abroad. There are symbols who have been able to collect that, despite never leaving Japan: take Yasuhito Endo, for example. He played mostly for Gamba Osaka and won accolades in his prime, playing three World Cups (two as a protagonists) and being capped more than 150 times for the national team.

But because Endo and Nakamura are around the same age – they’re both 40, although the Gamba legend is some months older thank Kengo –, they never shared the international stage. Endo became AFC Player of the Year in 2008, at 28, just after winning the AFC Champions League. Frontale reached the quarter finals in the season after, but he played internationally just in five seasons before winning the J1 title in 2017.

And Nakamura actually had a chance to move abroad, like himself revealed a few days ago. He was approached by PSV Eindhoven and he even hired a Dutch tutor to get language, but when he was time to sign – we’re talking about 2010 –, he didn’t want to leave the club which gave him the access to the pro-world. He then stayed and built another type of legacy: a one intertwined with the fans of the Todoroki Stadium.

The Frontale captain played 68 games and scored six goals with the Japanese national team, being called just for two major international tournament: the 2007 AFC Asian Cup (where he started in most matches) and the 2010 FIFA World Cup (where instead he featured just in one game as a sub). The funny thing, though, is that international recognition has come lately.

Both Fernando Torres and Andrés Iniesta – who joined respectively Sagan Tosu and Vissel Kobe in the last years – praised Kengo a lot. The former Atlético Madrid forward said: “I’m over the moon for Nakamura. I’m always interested in the no. 10, the player behind the two strikers. He’s a calm, solid presence for the team; he hasn’t played that much recently, but it’s always a joy for me to see him playing”.

From Iniesta, instead, Nakamura received a sort of induction by the current Vissel Kobe midfielder, describing Kengo like “a J. League god”. For someone who has Guardiola as his favorite player, loved FC Barcelona brand of football and admitted wearing the no. 14 on his shoulders because of Johan Cruyff, it’s not a bad endorsement. A pleasing way to close this journey.

Inner peace is the real exception

On November 1 of this year, the announcement came: Nakamura is stopping. Like Dan Orlowitz collected for “The Japan Times”, Nakamura had this thought for a while:  “After my 35th birthday when I made the decision (to retire at 40), I won the MVP at 36, our first league title at 37, another title at 38, and last year we won the Levain Cup. We were just winning an unbelievable number of titles”.

It has been incredible to witness this announcement for one reason: “sensei” never stop playing. You know of Kazuyoshi Miura, but there have been many examples of this tendency in the last years: Masashi Nakayama played at 45 for Consadole Sapporo and still features as an Azul Claro Numazu player; Shunsuke Nakamura is still playing for Yokohama FC and J2 record-man Koji Homma is still there for Mito HollyHock.

Without forgetting Hideki Nagai, who quit football at 45 years-old with Tokyo Verdy in 2016. He was on the bench for the first J. League game ever in 1993 (!) and he’s now the manager for Tokyo Verdy since July 2019 (so just less than three years after his retirement).

It’s tough for people in that position in Japanese society to let go, because the unknown might present a dimension where they might not fit in and/or lose part of their identity, of what they represent. Yet, Nakamura seems to be pretty certain of what he’s beyond football, with a role as a club ambassador shaping out in these months.

We’ve already seen his virtues on the pitch and we’re sure that it’s not JLR work to state something about that. Maybe there’s something though we could really celebrate: Kengo Nakamura has proved to be an experienced member of Frontale, J. League and a senator in the football of the Land of the Rising Sun, but he didn’t have to have a legacy by playing a theoretically indefinite stretch of time.

Like we pointed out with the examples above, it seems hard for certain players to stop, especially when you’re famous and well-beloved in the country. Many of those examples could have stopped before their terms, but they decided to endure more on the pitch, because they loved this game and because IMOO it’s hard to give up on status, especially in Japanese society.

This is why Kengo Nakamura feels special. He’s a “sensei” – he’s the ninth oldest player to ever feature in a J1 League match –, but he chose to say goodbye on his terms, proving he’s still at the technical peak of his skills. Last but not least, it’s not easy to find the strength of being so good at football and still being able to stand up once you fall. Because Nakamura fell a lot: he had to wait 13 years before winning any silverware beyond the J2 title of ’04.

And that’s maybe we love him; because as extraordinary as he has been (no doubt), he had to face many of the uncertain patterns we face not only as football fans, but as human beings. Struggle, sufferance, disappointments and, in all of this, finding the way to start again, counting on resilience and his own skills. For us, that’s how a superhero looks like, even if he’s comfortably lying in a golden bathtub for celebrating a title.

Like he said in the press conference to explain his retirement: “Soon after the Levain Cup was my 39th birthday, and in our next game (on Nov. 2) I tore my ACL. I had set my limit (for retirement), so I wanted to come back, show everyone I could still play, and retire. I was even more motivated to endure a difficult rehabilitation process and play in front of everyone as soon as possible.”

He did so. He scored a decisive goal in a 2-1 home win in the last Tamagawa Claasico he played. He enjoyed his first scoring moment of 2020 just eight minutes after coming onto the pitch against Shimizu S-Pulse.

It’s not clear if J. League will have another character like this one, but maybe that’s where his normality became extraordinary for Japanese football. 有難う 御座います, Kengo-san.

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