Hidetoshi Nakata 中田英寿
Nakata was not merely the best footballer of his generation but also the most intelligent and iconic athlete in Japan in the 1990s and early 2000s. After three World Cups, club football in three countries, Nakata hung up his boots at the age of 29.
"Hide" kicked off his professional career in 1995 at Bellmare in the J.League and within two years had won the Asian Football Confederation Player of the Year award, taking honors in 1997 and 1998.
At this point, teams in Europe began courting him. Some dismissed this--very quietly--as a cynical marketing move. "Even if Nakata can't cut in at the top level in Europe, the lucky club will reap millions in earnings and ad deals," went the logic.
Wrong on the first count, right on the second.
Nakata signed with Perugia where he started and scored with regularity--and, yes, Perugia made a lot of money off their Japanese star.
As a result, other clubs in Italy began to take notice. He moved to powerhouse AS Roma, where he helped the team to win the Serie A championship.
Nakata played a total of seven seasons in Italy, becoming a reliable starter in perhaps the world's most difficult league--and fluent in Italian. He then played one season for Bolton Wanderers in England's Premier League.
Following the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Hide stunned the soccer world in Japan by announcing his retirement from professional soccer.
The image of the always cool Nakata seated on the pitch following Japan's elimination, weeping, is remembered by nearly all Japanese.
Also known for his impatience with the swarming and incestuous Japanese media, Nakata was a bright and incisive athlete. At times, he was almost comically sarcastic with reporters and their inane questions.
He is now rumored to be training in Thailand in Thai kickboxing, as well as pursuing business and fashion opportunities.
Nakata was not fast, he was not the most skilled player on the field. However he had a tremendous sense of the flow of the game, and he was always cool. Japan is still searching for a player of his stature.