"To live is to journey, and to journey is to live."
December 1st 1985 – June 22nd 2006
Almost twenty years have passed since I first set out on my journey of "football". That journey began under the cold winter skies of Yamanashi, in the corner of a schoolyard, when I was eight years old.
Back in those days, kicking the ball would transport me to a different world, and my mind would be filled with nothing but the thought of scoring. I lived and breathed the game, taking a football with me wherever I went.
But it never occurred to me that this journey would prove to be such a long one. After proceeding through the qualifiers for Yamanashi followed by the Kanto Region, I played in the National Under-15, Under-17 and Youth teams, before playing in the J-League and then moving to Europe where I spent a significant part of my career.
Invited to play on the Olympic and national teams as well, I battled on countless football pitches, literally all over the world.
Throughout, no matter where I was or what I was doing, football was close to my heart. And what I got out of the game is immeasurable. Football has brought me intense pleasure, sadness, friendship, and at times tested me as a human being.
Naturally it wasn't all smooth sailing – far from it. But to me, everything that football brought has been a wonderful experience, providing the challenges, inspiration and stimulation necessary for me to grow as a person.
About six months ago, I decided to end my ten-year career in professional football, making the World Cup in Germany my final event before retirement.
There was no one particular event that triggered this. And there is no single reason behind my decision. But what I can say now is that I felt that it was time for me to graduate from the journey of professional football, and set out on a new journey.
Football – the biggest sport in the world. By nature, the world of football includes a huge number of fans, and a huge number of journalists. Players are the subjects of much attention and great expectations, and hold a certain responsibility to win. At times, I have been subject to such high praise that it was almost disillusioning, and at others I have been tormented by criticism that went as far as to deny my own self worth.
After turning professional, when asked if I liked football, I found that I was no longer able to give the straight answer "Yes, I love it!" that I would have before. While I was very much aware of the great honour and responsibility involved in what I was doing, I had somehow lost the pure feeling of passion for the ball that I had felt so strongly as a child.
But following the last whistle of our match against Brazil on the 22nd of June – the match that would be my last as a professional – I rediscovered a part of myself that always has and always will truly love soccer. On the pitch, I experienced an overwhelming wave of emotion – something far greater than I had been aware of myself.
I can see now that it was something that I had kept tucked away deep inside me – my true passion for football that I didn't want to become tarnished. Over the years, I had created a thick wall to protect those feelings.
In order to protect myself from certain situations, I would at times act completely cold and without emotion. But at the very end, the wall gave way, and my feelings showed themselves.
After the Brazil match, while imprinting into my mind the feeling of the grass beneath me for the last time, I did manage after several minutes to regain my composure but then when I looked up to the stands and acknowledged the supporters, the emotion came back intensely, as if to explode inside me.
Here is what was going through my mind:
The hoarse voices of fans who cheered for me with all their strength, regardless of which country or which stadium I happened to be playing in...
The sound of people cheering "NAKATA" that reached me on football pitches all over the world...
It really is because of everyone's support that I managed to continue this decade-long journey. And within this journey of football, the Japanese national team has been a truly special destination for me. Throughout my final tournament, in Germany, there was one thing I was aware of constantly as I played: The question "What message can I leave to all the other players, staff and fans?
I really felt that the Japanese team had huge potential going into this tournament. The individual players are highly skilled, and on top of this we have speed. The one thing that was disappointing was that we didn't have the skills to bring out the best in ourselves – to achieve to our full potential. Over the last four years, I had been trying in my own way to make the players realise this. In an effort to communicate, I would sometimes try encouraging, and at other times resort to yelling, and I know I made my teammates angry on numerous occasions. But I was not able to effectively convey my message.
I felt truly sorry that the World Cup finished with the result it did for us. Afterwards, I did a lot of thinking, asking myself just what it was that I had contributed, what I had made everybody feel, throughout my football career. But to be honest I could not confidently say that I had succeeded in communicating anything.
Still, after reading through each and every mail sent to me, it became clear that there really are a lot of people out there who do understand me – what I wanted to convey and what I thought the national team needed. And I am now confident that my approach to my football-life, ever since turning professional, has been the right one.
To think that I would be leaving the national team, and football, without having managed to leave anything behind, was really hard on me. But I believe that all those who have made the effort to understand me, will be there to support the new national team.
That is why I am now able to set out on a new journey with no regrets.
There's one last thing I'd like to say.
I am someone who has always held my head up high, and I will continue to live like that, even after stepping away from professional football. The strength to do this comes from all of the support I have had over the years.
And whatever the future holds, I know I will never lose that pride, because all of your voices will be with me, in my heart.
A new journey is about to begin.
While I won't be returning to the pitch as a player, I will not give up football. I have no doubt that along the way I will be kicking a ball around with someone on a patch of grass or on a small football field, not as a profession but as a form of communication, with the same passion I had back in my early childhood.
To each and every player who shared the pitch with me, to each and every person who has played a part in my life, and to each and every one of you who believed in and supported me right until the last moment, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
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