Shunsuke Nakamura picked up his second J.League Player of the Year award this week, and after the awards ceremony I asked those who’ve played with and against him over the years – and the man himself – for some thoughts on the accolade…
YOKOHAMA—Shunsuke Nakamura made J.League history Tuesday when he became the first two-time winner of the top division’s Player of the Year award.
The Yokohama F Marinos midfielder also earned the title in 2000 during his initial stint at his hometown club, and his peers were unanimous in endorsing the 35-year-old’s second accolade.
“For me there wasn’t any option but him,” Nakamura’s Marinos teammate and 2004 Player of the Year Yuji Nakazawa said after the ceremony. “If he hadn’t have been here, then I don’t think Marinos would have finished in second place [in J1].”
“He’s amazing,” said Nakamura’s former Japan colleague Yasuhito Endo, who was selected as J2’s best player for his efforts at Gamba Osaka. “It looked like this year he’d take it, and I’m glad he did.”
Hisato Sato, whose Sanfrecce Hiroshima side pipped Nakamura’s Marinos to the post for the championship this year, agreed there had been no mistake in the voting.
“It’s a deserved result,” said Sato, who picked up the Player of the Year trophy last season. “Of course we won the title, but if I had to think of one player who had done the most in the J.League this year then Shunsuke would be the first to come to mind.”
Nakamura was proud to claim his second trophy, but was keen to stress the support that made it possible.
“I know what it takes to have a good season—I had it at Celtic, too, so I understand that feeling,” he said, referring to the series of individual and team honors he earned with the Scottish giant.
“I know you can’t do this without having very talented teammates, coaches and, of course, great supporters. All those things come together and that’s when it’s possible to receive this kind of prize.”
The fact his team failed to end the season as champion understandably took an edge off the celebrations, with Nakamura yet to add a domestic league title to those he earned in Scotland. But the Kanagawa native maintained he hadn’t given up hope of lifting the J1 shield one day.
“Of course, during the last two games I was thinking it was the last chance,” he admitted about Marinos needing just one win from their final two matches to sew up the championship. But they dropped both to Albirex Niigata and then Kawasaki Frontale, allowing Sanfrecce to come up on the rails and defend their crown.
“I’ve had a few days to get over it and have managed to get my head straight now, but I do wish I could have kept my emotions in check at the time. Having gone over it all in my head, I still believe that I am capable of going that extra step. We just have to work hard in training and do it on the pitch.”
Any nagging doubts about this having been the golden opportunity were shrugged off, with the former Japan star keen to stay positive.
“Of course, you don’t know if the Marinos players will be able to perform the same as this year and many new players will join,” he said. “If I think like that, there could be regret about what we could have achieved this year, but I prepared a lot as captain so in that sense I don’t feel any regret.”
Hideaki Kitajima, whose Ichiritsu Funabashi defeated Nakamura’s Toko Gakuen in the 1996 All Japan High School final, is also confident that time hasn’t run out for his long-time sparring partner and friend.
“Age is not important, he has the technical ability and consistently plays fantastically,” Kitajima, who retired at the end of this season, told The Japan News. “His performances this year got him the Player of the Year award and I’m really happy for him.
“He still has a chance [to win J1]. He is undoubtedly the type of player who can lead his team to the title.”