The marketing prospects Japanese players offer are causing people to overlook what a fine player Bolton have signed in Hidetoshi Nakata, believes Justin McCurry
There was a certain inevitability about the cynicism that greeted the arrival of Hidetoshi Nakata at the Reebok Stadium. In persuading the unsettled Japan midfielder to move to Bolton from Fiorentina, Sam Allardyce had, so the received wisdom goes, ensured the club a steady income from replica-shirt sales, television coverage in the Far East and household corporate names on pitch-side sponsorship hoardings. After all, other Japanese players to have signed for Premiership clubs – remember Akinori Nishizawa and Kazuyuki Toda? – have done little to dispel the notion that they are anything more than cash cows in football boots.
There is little doubt that in Japan, Nakata’s influence reaches well beyond football, even after seven years as a journeyman in Italy. He can be seen on TV selling anything from digital cameras to skincare products. His penchant for speaking his mind finds favour among rebellious teens and twentysomethings and his dress sense has inspired a generation of trendy Tokyoites.
Such is Nakata’s presence that Allardyce quickly found himself in the unusual position of having to defend a loan signing of the greatest player ever to have emerged from currently the best footballing nation in Asia. Had Nakata moved to a more illustrious European club, the global marketing machine would no doubt have roared into action before the ink was dry on his contract. Bolton may have the same multinational credentials as the bigger clubs, but don’t expect a Trotters Megastore to open in Tokyo just yet.
For now, it appears that Bolton’s commercial opportunities in Japan will be limited. “There will be increased exposure of Bolton Wanderers on Japanese TV and in newspapers, and, inevitably, more interest in the club from Japanese sponsors, but clubs like Bolton haven’t got the network in place to take full advantage,” says Oliver Butler of the marketing firm Sport + Markt.
Bolton have already discovered that courting Japan doesn’t necessarily open the revenue sluice gates. Their two friendly matches in Japan this summer – albeit against weak J-League opposition – were played in front of crowds of fewer than 10,000 and raised a meagre quarter of a million pounds.
But for Allardyce the trip wasn’t entirely wasted. Having heard that Nakata was with Fiorentina a few miles down the road in Osaka, the Bolton manager hopped into a taxi and by the end of their meeting Nakata was effectively on his way to the Reebok.
Though he has yet to play for his new club, Nakata has charmed the local media with his near-perfect English and his obvious relief at the prospect of playing regular first-team football. Only time will tell whether he is also prepared to display some of the character traits that have made him as many enemies as friends. This, remember, is the man who, seconds after Japan qualified for France 98, berated Japanese supporters for not showing the same enthusiasm for league football and who, when asked on the eve of the tournament which players he admired most, replied: “No one in particular.”
There is no love lost between Nakata and the Japanese media, not least because of persistent tabloid speculation about his private life. And, faced with inane post-match questions from his compatriots, he can be surly and dismissive, preferring to save his insights for his website. It is safe to say that his ban on questions in Japanese during press conferences is more than just a gesture of goodwill towards the indigenous media.
With the no-nonsense Allardyce to answer to, now might be a good time for Nakata to adopt a more conciliatory line. His frequent clashes with the then Japan coach Philippe Troussier came to a head in 2001 when he decided to play for Roma, who admittedly were on the verge of winning the league title, rather than for Japan in the Confederations Cup. To be fair, he buried that particular hatchet and quickly emerged as the voice of the players in the dressing room, a role that has broadened to de facto coach under the tactically naive Zico. But his move to Bolton was inspired in part by a long-running feud over his midfield position with Claudio Prandelli, his coach at Parma who, by unhappy coincidence, then showed up at Fiorentina.
Nakata may indeed spark an unlikely association between the English north-west and the Far East that brings extra funds to the Reebok. As Allardyce acknowledged: “We need the money more than anyone else.” But even if the big payday never materializes, in “Hide” he has an intelligent, enigmatic man and a gifted player who will add yet another dimension to what is already one of the most cosmopolitan dressing rooms in the Premiership.
From WSC 224 October 2005. What was happening this month