Nakayama joins 100 club

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!