Cesare Polenghi | Japan Expert
In 1994, the J.League was in full bloom. Boosted by the coffers of their parent companies, Japanese clubs spent freely in order to secure some of the world’s top players.
It was the era of Zico, Pierre Littbarski and Gary Lineker. But, undeniably, the most flamboyant signing in Japan's second year of professional football was that of Italia '90 top-scorer Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci, who was flown over to join the Yamaha-backed Jubilo Iwata.
It was the first proper encounter between the football cultures of Japan and Italy, at a time when the latter sported Il Campionato piu’ bello del mondo (the most beautiful championship in the world) and featured the likes of Roberto Baggio and Gianfranco Zola.
Although the J.League's style of play was largely inspired by Brazilian football, Serie A represented the ideal league with its glamour and high-quality play. Proof of this can be seen in the Japanese division's official flag, which boasted an Italian tricolore.
Despite a severe injury that shortened his career, Toto Schillaci did not disappoint Japanese supporters. His 65 goals in 93 appearances lit up Asia, while his acrobatic simulations and demonstrations of the 'Italia 90 glance', when Toto would stare at the official with an incredulous pose until his eyes practically bulged out of their sockets, made him the all round entertainment package.
|FAR EAST MOVEMENT
| HIDETOSHI NAKATA
|The midfielder joined Perugia in 1998, and won the Scudetto with Roma in 2001, before spending the 2004-2005 season with Fiorentina.|
|The 26-year-old is a firm part of the Nerazzurri defence with his bucaneering runs from left-back. He signed a new deal in January.|
| SHUNSUKE NAKAMURA
|The midfielder impressed in three seasons with Reggina between 2002 and 2005. However, the club struggled in Serie A and he moved onto Celtic.|
| TAKAYUKI MORIMOTO
|Morimoto has spent six seasons with Catania after being signed from Tokyo Verdy in 2006. He's failed to fire, however, & is now on-loan at Al-Nasr.|
In the summer of 1994, it was time for a Japanese player to make the reverse trip. With heavy backing from Kenwood, Kazuyoshi Miura, one of the league’s brightest stars, travelled from Kawasaki to Genoa, where he joined the Rossoblu.
But his season was cursed. “Kazu,” as he is known by his millions of supporters in Japan, received a broken nose courtesy of Franco Baresi on the day of his Serie A debut. It was a bad omen for a season that saw Miura score just one goal before being shipped home.
Kazu was not the only Japanese to flop in Serie A: Hiroshi Nanami, Masashi Oguro, Atsushi Yanagisawa and Mitsuru Ogasawara earned respect for their hard work in training, but failed to rise to the level needed to compete in Italy.
However, there have also been success stories, such as Shunsuke Nakamura (who had three good seasons at Reggina before moving to Celtic) and striker Takayuki Morimoto (who recorded more than 100 appearances and 19 goals between Catania and Novara).
But the two poster boys for Japan in Italy are Yuto Nagatomo, who has played at Cesena and Inter for three seasons, and Hidetoshi Nakata.
The latter joined Perugia in 1998 and was, for his first three seasons in Italy, one of the most exotic stars in Serie A. He celebrated his debut with two goals against Juventus and netted an impressive 10 times in his first season before moving to Roma in January 2000, where the following season he was pivotal in helping the team to clinch the Scudetto.
Upon leaving the capital, allegedly because of incompatibility with Francesco Totti, Nakata moved on to Parma (where he won an Italian Cup), Fiorentina and Bologna before switching to Bolton, where he shocked Japanese fans by retiring at just 29-years-old.
Despite his meteoric rise and fall, the Kofu native will always be remembered as a quality player who completely reversed the negative opinion Italian supporters had of Japanese football, especially after the embarrassing performances of some of his countrymen.
Yet, back in Japan, only two Italians joined Schillaci: Daniele Massaro, who scored just one goal in eight appearances, and underdog Giuseppe Zappella, who played for a couple of seasons at Urawa Reds.
But the biggest Italian arrival to make the move to Japan came after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when the Japan Football Association hired Alberto Zaccheroni to coach the national team. He immediately led Japan to glory at the Asian Cup in early 2011, injecting a massive dose of tactical acumen and professionalism into the Samurai Blue.
While they share many bonds, Japan and Italy have faced each other just once, and never competitively. The showdown in Recife in the Confederations Cup on Wednesday will be the first real confrontation between the two footballing nations and, though nobody may have considered the possibility during Schillaci’s era, it may very well be a fair fight.