“I really love soccer”.

Simple sentence, one to which many of us can agree. You can say it out loud because of a win, despite of a loss, after a long training session or just because you enjoyed a tough, but pleasant afternoon at the stadium. In this case, though, the man saying those words has tears falling from his face, like water streaming through a river.

It’s the last day in the office he’s known his whole life and career. December 4th, 2010: it’s the day of Yokohama F. Marinos v. Omiya Ardija. The match isn’t that important; what really counts is the aftermath. When the match is over, Naoki Matsuda – club-legend and former Japan’s national team member – realizes that’s the last time is gonna wear a Marinos’ jersey in his life.

When he talks in front of his fans, his words really give us a feeling of how much he loves the jersey he has been wearing for 15 years and the sport in general: “I really like soccer. I really want to play soccer more. I really want to show the best part of my game, so let me continue”. It’s like, deep down, he felt that every minute in life – and in sports – needs to be enjoyed.

At that time, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He doesn’t know he’s going to sign for Matsumoto Yamaga, an ambitious club in JFL (when J3 wasn’t around). He doesn’t know the clock started ticking for him. And he doesn’t know how much of a history he’ll build despite not being around in the most important part of Matsumoto Yamaga’s rise.

It’s been 10 years since that tragic day. In our minds, Matsuda isn’t just a great character to talk about and a beloved figure of an era where J. League wasn’t still so recognized around the world. He has been a transitional figure for the championship, and you can see it within the growth of Matsumoto Yamaga, who were still a non-pro team a decade ago and now they have already experienced J1. Twice.

The legend before that day

Born in the Gunma Prefecture in 1977, Matsuda fought his way through the Japanese football ladder. At 16, he was actually playing many sports, but he picked football, because he liked the competitiveness the sport demanded from him. He featured in several Under-teams; he played in the Olympics; he was part of squads who took part to Asian Cups and, most of all, the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

As a prospect, he was so renowned that 10 of the 12 J. League clubs back then fought to sign him, but Yokohama Marinos got the best of the others. When he joined the squad, head coach Jorge Solari told him right away he would have been greater even than Masami Ihara, one of the most decorated Marinos players in the history of the club. The Argentinian was right: Matsuda became the captain in 2003, opting to stay even by reducing his salary by 60% in ’07.

The two love stories of his career ended both abruptly. As for Japan, when Zico didn’t pick him up for a match against Bahrain (in March ’05), Matsuda opted to follow the game from the stands rather than from them bench. Then he left the squad without permission to come home. Besides tactics a letter of apology (which didn’t serve any purpose in that cae), surely Matsuda didn’t the like the thought of losing his spot within the national team, when he was just 28 years old and after many struggles to get there.

With Marinos, it went the same the way. Just in ’09, Matsuda was expecting to close his career in Yokohama. Instead, 2010 brought some news: “Mr. Marinos” himself, after starting almost every match in the second part of the season, was let go by Marinos with a one-sided decision. The management of the club just opted to free many veterans, including the no. 3.

A touching reportage of how Matsuda endured his first months in the new reality. He seems determined, driven to bring success in Matsumoto.

When he joined Yamaga, someone even mentioned the “Matsuda-effect”, the leadership of the defender. To Matsuda, the goal to achieve was clear: put Nagano Prefecture on the map of Japanese football. “I came here to aim at J1”, said the former Marinos in May 2011. Little did he know they would have gotten there just three years later. Unfortunately, without him.

On a dreadful morning

It’s August 2nd, 2011. Matsumoto Yamaga are struggling a little bit: their slump isn’t ending, and they tumbled too many times to confirm their status of favorites in the run to promotion. Like every morning, Matsuda is ready to give his 110% on the pitch. Unfortunately, at 9:58 a.m., he collapses on the field: in the aftermath, the doctors will attest that the defender suffered a cardiopulmonary arrest, due to an acute myocardic infection.

He’s brought to the hospital, but it’s clear from the start that the situation is dire: machines help him and his pulse, but he doesn’t regain consciousness. In the span of 48 hours, it’s not just the whole Matsumoto following his developments; the whole country doesn’t believe what’s happening. Are we talking about the same guy who, eight months before, told a crowd of beloved fans that he wanted so badly to continue playing the sport he loved?

More than often, life doesn’t give you a motive about why bad things happen. They just do. And two days later, on August 4th, the life of Naoki Matsuda ended. Five days later, at his funeral, many among former Japan and Marinos team-mates decided to show up, in order to pay their respects to this larger-than-life character.

Despite it hurts now to think about it, no automated external defibrillator (AED) was available that summer day near Yamaga’s training ground. This spurred though the interest over this Issue in Japan, and many steps forward have been made since that day. Unfortunately, we’ll never get back the gaffer himself.

What stayed beyond Naoki

J. League kept going on two days after his death. It almost seemed unreal: Marinos lost away at Kashiwa Reysol, but the distraught went way beyond the simple loss. Takayuki Yoshida scored a brace in Saitama against Urawa Red Diamonds and dedicates both goals to Matsuda. Yamaga faced Sagawa Shiga at home: they lost 2-1, but after the temporary equalizer, Ryosuke Kijima lifted up his jersey, revealing the no. 3 under his.

Destiny is strange. Just a few weeks after this terrible event, Emperor’s Cup saw Yokohama F. Marinos and Matsumoto Yamaga squaring off in the Fourth Round: Marinos won 4-0, but mostly the match felt like it was a huge testimonial match for Naoki Matsuda. Not bad anyway by Yamaga, who indeed managed to become a pro-team, having won promotion from JFL just a couple of weeks before that game.

There are many who homaged Naoki Matsuda or shared memories about him in these last days:

  • Philippe Troussier, former head coach of Japan between 2000 and ’02, said about him: “He was a mature player, I had a frank and direct dynamic with him. You could always count on Naoki”, underlining Matsuda’s absolute drive and determination towards the final goal.
  • Yuzo Kurihara, who played his whole career at Marinos (from 2002 to 2019), said he was honored to end his career with a championship, and share the locker room with Matsuda. He also told that he was able to stay a long time with Marinos because of how Naoki-san paved the way for senators to retain their spot in Yokohama. Something that didn’t happen in 2010 with Matsuda, who then joined Matsumoto Yamaga.
  • Tadashi Matsumoto was the official photographer for Yokohama F. Marinos in 2010 and he got to watch closely – other than film – the whole speech of Matsuda after his final game with the club: “He was in tears and my eyes looking through the viewfinder became hot. […] I remember the scene that made me feel unbearable and lonely, looking sideways during the post-match ceremony […] He would have been 44 today… I wonder which kind of leader he would have become”.
  • Actually, on “The Answer”, you can find a full streak of letters and thoughts devoted to celebrating Matsuda’s life and career, on and off the pitch.
In 2020, Marinos produced a solid 20 minutes-piece with several voices narrating Matsuda’s gestures. Among them: Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, Daisuke Nasu, Yuzo Kurihara and current Marinos team member, Kota Mizunuma.

Among them, though, two characters probably managed to live up to the memory of Naoki Matsuda. Both are former team-mates, but the first is actually born in Matsumoto: Hayuma Tanaka played with Matsuda at Marinos and he was the only one allowed to wear the no. 3 at Yamaga once he joined the club in 2014. The day of Matsumoto’s first historical J1 promotion, you could see and understand the stream of feelings running through Tanaka’s mind.

The second character is Shunsuke Nakamura. He was clearly one of the most upset persons from Matsuda’s departure, because Naoki had always been there. He wore a Marinos’ jersey when Nakamura became a national sensation (before leaving for Europe), and he was enjoying his last months in Yokohama when Shunsuke came back after a bleak stint with Espanyol in Barcelona.

The two were so intertwined that actually Nakamura became Marinos’ captain after Matsuda joined Yamaga. Nakamura remembered the long drives in the car with Matsuda, talking about the future: “He told me that I should expand my world. At that time, my mind was merely focused on soccer. My only trip was from my home to the training ground and that was it”.

It was Matsuda who told the young Shunsuke that there was more than just football: “Through those experiences, I learned more about sociability; I had more depth as a human being. He was straight-forward”. Nakamura never forgot that August 4th: “When I heard about it, I just drove straight to Matsumoto”.

To sum it up, though, Nakamura probably gave to every and single one of us, who have a fond memory of Matsuda, the right key to read this anniversary and celebrate this beloved figure: “It might seem strange to some people, but talking about Matsu-san doesn’t make me feel sad. He had such a big influence on many, including myself: he still feels alive in my memory”. Like a guy who loved soccer – and life – in a unique way.

One thought on “L3g3nd

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s