Nakata began his professional career in 1995 and won the Asian Football Confederation Player of the Year award in 1997 and 1998, the Scudetto with Roma in 2001, played for Japan in three FIFA World Cup tournaments (1998, 2002 and 2006) and competed in the Olympics twice (1996 and 2000). In 2005, he was made the Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity, one of Italy's highest honors, for improving the country's image overseas. Nakata has also been involved in fashion, regularly attending runway shows and wearing designer clothing.
Nakata announced his retirement at age 29 on July 3, 2006 after a ten-year career that included seven seasons in the Italian Serie A and a season in the English Premier League. In March 2004, Pelé named Nakata in his FIFA 100, a list of the top living footballers at the time. Nakata was the only Japanese, and one of only two Asian footballers (the other being Korean defender Hong Myung-bo) to be named on the list.
Nakata began his professional career at age 18 in 1995, with J1 League side Bellmare Hiratsuka (now Shonan Bellmare). After the 1998 World Cup in France, Nakata was signed by Perugia in Italy's Serie A for 4M US$, becoming the second Japanese player ever to appear in the Italian top league after Kazuyoshi Miura had done it for Genoa four years earlier. In his first season in Italy, Nakata scored 10 goals, his single-season highest total.
In January 2000, after one and a half seasons at Perugia, Nakata moved to Roma for 42 Billion ITL (€21.691 million) helping the team win the scudetto. The highlight of Nakata's career at Roma came on May 6, 2001 in the Serie A match against Juventus at Stadio Delle Alpi. After replacing Francesco Totti in the second half with Roma trailing 0–2, Nakata netted with a 30-yard goal beyond Juventus goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar's reach, with 11 minutes left in the match. He then helped Roma score the equalizer when his fierce drive from outside the box was parried by Van der Sar into the path of Vincenzo Montella, who scored for Roma in the last minute. The match ended with a 2–2 draw and Roma maintained a six-point margin atop the league table.
In the summer of 2001, Nakata penned a four-year deal with Parma for a transfer fee of 55 billion lire (€28.4 million) a world record payment for an Asian player which would not be broken for 14 years. He made his club debut on 8 August 2001 in their 0–2 defeat at Stadio Ennio Tardini against Lille in the first leg of the third round of the Champions League. More than one month later, on 23 September, Nakata scored his first goal for Parma in Serie A at home over Brescia, which also proved to be the winning goal of the match. Nakata played there for two and a half seasons, where he scored a crucial goal during the 2001–02 season in the 1–2 first leg deficit of the Coppa Italia final against Juventus, which Parma eventually won.
In January 2004, Nakata joined Bologna where he played the remainder of the 2003–04 season before moving to Fiorentina, where he played the following season. In August 2005, Nakata moved to Premiership side Bolton Wanderers on loan. During his season at Bolton, which would be the last of his professional career, he scored once in the league, in a 2–0 win over West Bromwich Albion.
After having represented Japan at the 1993 U-17 World Championship (where he scored a goal) and at the 1995 U-20 World Championship (where he scored twice), Nakata was part of the Japan squads at the 1996 Olympics, where Japan upset Brazil, and at the 2000 Olympics. His senior national team debut came in May 1997 against South Korea.
He was a key member of the Japanese side that qualified for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, scoring five goals in qualification matches and setting up all three Japanese goals in the qualification play-off against Iran. He helped Japan reach the final of the 2001 Confederations Cup but left the national team before the final to join Roma for their final league matches. Nakata played in all four of Japan's matches at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, scoring the second goal of a 2–0 first round win against Tunisia.
At the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Nakata played in all three matches for Japan, losing to Australia and Brazil, and drawing with Croatia. His performance against Croatia earned him a Man of the Match award. After the 2006 FIFA World Cup, on July 3, 2006, Nakata announced his retirement from professional football and the Japanese national team on his personal website "I decided half a year ago that I would retire from the world of professional football ... after the World Cup in Germany." Nakata wrote, "I will never again stand on the pitch as a professional player. But I will never give up football." In a 2014 interview in TMW Magazine, Nakata confirmed that he had retired at such a young age because he was no longer enjoying football, and wanted instead to see what was going on in the world.
Despite Nakata playing every match in Japan's first three World Cup appearances, he was not selected for the country's Asian Cup-winning squads in 2000 and 2004. In total, he was capped 77 times for Japan, scoring 11 goals, 9 of which came in official FIFA competitions.
A quick, creative, hard-working, and offensive-minded central midfielder, with an eye for goal, Nakata was known for his technical ability, agility, vision, passing, and his ability to make attacking runs into the penalty area and score goals; he also possessed a powerful shot from outside the area.
Outside of football Nakata has shown interest in fashion, attending runway shows, wearing designer clothing and sporting colorful haircuts. He dyed his hair blond for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, hoping to attract the attention of European scouts. Japanese hairstylist Aki Watanabe credits him as a trendsetter. Andrea Tenerani, photographer for GQ in Italy said of Nakata, "He's perfect; he's like a model. And he's totally obsessed with fashion." Calvin Klein designer Italo Zucchelli said, "(Nakata) plays with fashion like all of them now, but in a cooler, more sophisticated way than many others." He is one of the models featuring the Calvin Klein underwear campaign 2010. He was featured in the July 2007 US version of GQ with a 12-page spread on fall fashion. He was featured in GQ in his home country in December 2011.
Often regarded as a Japanese David Beckham, because of his obsession with fashion and his status as a role model for many Asian Football exports to Europe, Nakata is an editor-at-large at Monocle at the invitation of his friend Tyler Brûlé, who serves as the magazine's editor-in-chief.
Nakata has cited the popular manga and anime series, Captain Tsubasa, as his primary inspiration in choosing football as a career.
In recent years, he has also been an active supporter of Special Olympics football and participated in the 2010 Special Olympics Unity Cup in South Africa during the World Cup. Nakata was named a Global Ambassador for Special Olympics in 2014.
Towards the end of 2015, Nakata entered into a partnership with Kee Club in Hong Kong to open Koko, a Hong Kong-based restaurant that serves sakes created by Nakata himself. He has developed his own line of sake as well as creating his own mobile educational app, "Sakenomy". Expressing interest in educating the public about sake, Nakata stated, "People recognise brands of wine but not usually brands of sake. There is a lack of information and branding when it comes to sake. That’s why I thought I needed to create a brand that people can recognise and understand. My purpose is to expand the market for all sake not just my own. You can pair any type of cuisine with sake. It can go with French, Italian, even Chinese food, not just Japanese cuisine."
Having been signed to sportswear company Nike, Nakata featured in Nike's "Secret Tournament" advertisement (branded "Scorpion KO") directed by Terry Gilliam, in the buildup to the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan. He appeared alongside other star football players from around the world, including Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Luís Figo, Thierry Henry, Roberto Carlos and Francesco Totti, with former player Eric Cantona the tournament "referee".
1Includes other competitive competitions, including the Asian Cup Winners' Cup, UEFA Intertoto Cup, UEFA Cup and UEFA Champions League. 2Includes other competitive competitions, including the Japanese Super Cup and Supercoppa Italiana.1998 FIFA World Cup
2001 Confederations Cup
2002 FIFA World Cup
2003 Confederations Cup
2005 Confederations Cup
2006 FIFA World Cup
May 1997-June 2006
Debut against South Korea
FIFA World Cup appearances: 1998, 2002, 2006
Asian Cup Winners Cup: 1996
Serie A: 2000–01
Coppa Italia: 2001–02
Kirin Cup: 1997
J. League All-Star Soccer: 1997
J. League Best Eleven: 1997
Japanese Footballer of the Year: 1997
Japan Professional Sports Grand Prize: 1997
Asian Footballer of the Year: 1997 1998
Dynasty Cup MVP: 1998
AFC All Star Team: 1997 1998 1999
FIFA Confederations Cup Bronze Ball: 2001
FIFA Confederations Cup Best Eleven: 2001
FIFA World Cup All-Star Team: 2002 (Reserve)
J. League 20th Anniversary Team
Golden Foot Legends Award: 2014
Nominated for Ballon d'Or: 1998, 1999, 2001
Nominated for FIFA World Player of the Year: 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002