By Jeremy Walker
TOKYO (July 27)--When Masashi Nakayama notched his 100th league
goal for Jubilo Iwata on Wednesday night, Japanese football celebrated
as one. (Well, maybe not Vissel Kobe, who were sliding towards
a sixth consecutive defeat at the time; but even they, once the
dust had settled, would not begrudge Nakayama his landmark goal.)
In short, the 32-year-old striker is a marvellous advert for
the game; a true professional on and off the pitch whose enthusiasm
appeals to the Japanese public in general as opposed to merely
the football fraternity.
Nakayama hails from Shizuoka prefecture, which is regarded
as Japan's football hotbed and a production line of international
players, and progressed from Fujieda Higashi High School to Tsukuba
University, the former team of Japan's World Cup captain in France,
Masami Ihara. Jubilo, based in the Yamaha factory town of Iwata
in Shizuoka, did not enter the J.League in its first year, 1993,
but joined in the second season, and Nakayama made his debut on
March 12, 1994, away to Kashima Antlers. His first goal came in
the third round of matches, against Verdy Kawasaki at Tokyo's
National Stadium, on March 19, 1994, and he hit the 100 mark in
his 181st appearance.
His best year was 1998, when he led the scoring chart with
36 goals in 27 appearances and scored four successive hat-tricks,
including five in one game against Cerezo Osaka.
That year, Nakayama was named J.League Player of the Year and
also had the honour of scoring Japan's only goal at the France
World Cup, in a 2-1 defeat by Jamaica. Everyone loves ""Gon" ,
as he is affectionately known due to his likeness to a comedian
on a Saturday Night Live-type TV show during his college days,
and he always has a smile on his face for fans and media alike.
In fact the only time most people can remember him looking
downcast was at Japan's pre-1998 World Cup camp in Nyon, Switzerland.
It was the afternoon training session following the morning announcement
by national coach Takeshi Okada that Kazuyoshi Miura, Nakayama's
strike-partner for so many years in Japan's national team, had
been cut from the final list of 22. If "Kazu" was devastated,
so was Nakayama, who, during the qualifying competition, had worn
Kazu's No. 11 jersey under his own when Kazu was suspended "so
he could take Kazu's fighting spirit on to the pitch." It worked,
and Nakayama scored a crucial goal against Kazakhstan, celebrating
by displaying the No. 11!
"He's a leader," says national coach Philippe Troussier of
Nakayama, "as well as being a natural goal scorer." Nakayama,
in fact, is the master poacher of the penalty box, a player who
can anticipate the final pass a split-second quicker than his
marker...and this is all he needs to make the net bulge again.
Away from goal, Nakayama's general play is limited, in much
the same way Gary Lineker's was, but team-mates know his strengths
and whip in crosses from both sides that invariably end up in
the net as Nakayama appears in a blur of light blue. He's got
pace, too, and caught the eye alongside Miura when Japan played
England at Wembley in the Umbro Cup in June 1995, England winning
2-1 with a late penalty from David Platt. In 38 appearances for
Japan, Nakayama has scored 20 goals, and while the 2002 World
Cup may be just out of his reach, he has left his mark for ever
on the domestic game with his 100th league goal. He's only the
second player to do it...after Kazuyoshi Miura, of course!