Japan can forge 'football identity' in Brazil: Nakata
Japan should forget about results at the World Cup and focus instead on laying down a style blueprint for the next 50 years, former Samurai Blue superstar Hidetoshi Nakata told AFP.
Japanese football chief Kuniya Daini has set the Asian champions the target of reaching the quarter-finals in Brazil, having got to the second round for the first time on home soil in 2002 and again in South Africa in 2010.
Japan have been drawn in Group C alongside Colombia, Ivory Coast and Greece, and will be appearing at their fifth straight tournament having made their debut at France 1998.
But Nakata, who shot to fame as Asia's first modern football icon before retiring in 2006 at the age of just 29, believes now is the time for Japan to "put their footprint on the World Cup".
"We have to create our identity for the next 50 years," Nakata said at the Brazilian embassy in Tokyo, where he was launching a self-branded cafe promoting traditional Japanese culture in Sao Paulo during the World Cup.
"I was a player, so for the players it's very important to win every single match even when they don't care about how they are playing.
"That I understand, but as a national team I think they have to start making history and an identity. When you hear about Brazil, Italy, Germany, Spain, you know how they play. You have an image because they have created that image over a long time."
Nakata starred in Japan's first three World Cup campaigns, making his name as a flame-haired upstart in 1998 before earning a move to Perugia and winning the Serie A title with Roma during a seven-year career in Italy.
The midfielder then shocked his adoring nation by retiring abruptly after Japan had crashed out of the 2006 World Cup in the first round.
- No retirement regrets -
But not even the excitement building around this year's tournament in Brazil can persuade him he made the wrong decision.
"If you start regretting one thing, you have to regret all the things in your life," said the 37-year-old, who won 77 caps and scored 11 goals for his country.
"When I see matches in a big tournament, I'd love to play all the time. But my decision was not that easy, not that light.
"Of course I always want to play until I die, but as a professional, when I decided to quit I knew I should stop thinking about playing again as a professional."
Nakata, a style icon in his country who is often referred to as "the Asian David Beckham," has followed an unconventional post-career path.
The former Roma, Parma and Bolton Wanderers man spent three years travelling the world before realising he knew little about his own country, and has since immersed himself in Japanese culture and devoted himself to promoting it overseas.
"For the last five years I have been travelling all over Japan to meet farmers, craftsmen, sake makers, (see) shrines and temples, to learn about Japanese culture," he said.
"I left Japan for Italy when I was 21, so I didn't know about Japanese culture. That's the reason why I started travelling in Japan. I want to be the best spokesperson for Japanese culture."
Nakata will be in Brazil to watch his countrymen try to break new ground this summer, and believes Japan have come a long way since he was part of the side that lost all three first-round games in 1998.
"Japan have been in the last five World Cups, so now it's normal for people to think that Japan will qualify for a World Cup. It's not something special any more," he said.
"It's the same thing for the team. They can't be satisfied just to be in a World Cup. Now they have to put their footprint on the World Cup, which means they have to take the next step."