DOHA: Mellowing with age is not part of the plan for Japan veteran Yuto Nagatomo, whose flame-red hair and wild celebrations are helping to fuel the Blue Samurai’s fire in Qatar.
The 36-year-old full-back has been in irrepressible mood at his fourth World Cup — a record for a Japanese outfield player — and is fully embracing his role as the team’s elder statesman.
Nagatomo played nearly an hour of Japan’s stunning 2-1 opening win over Germany but his involvement was not over when he left the pitch.
He spent the rest of the match encouraging his teammates from the sidelines and racing off the bench to congratulate goalscorers Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano.
He then carried his exuberant mood over into his post-match interviews, screaming “Bravo!” into a TV camera in a clip that went viral around the world.
It was nothing out of the ordinary for a player who has dyed his hair red for the tournament to fire up his teammates.
“The idea was that it’s the red of the Japanese flag, and it also shows the passion of our players,“ Nagatomo explained.
“I wanted to express that. I asked people what colour I should dye it and a lot said red. I had thought that as well so it felt like it best represented my attitude towards the World Cup.”
Nagatomo said his wife, a TV personality in Japan, had even dyed her hair a red tinge in “a gesture of unity”.
The defender was never likely to do things by half at a World Cup in which he is determined to have a positive impact.
Japan’s squad contains 19 players making their World Cup debuts and only a handful of veterans.
Defender Maya Yoshida and reserve goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima are still around but most of the generation who led Japan at the previous three World Cups — Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Makoto Hasebe — have moved on.
Nagatomo is taking a hands-on leadership role, always at the front of the group when the players warm up and a constant vocal presence in training sessions.
“We have a lot of players who are playing at their first World Cup and they have confidence from playing at European clubs. We don’t have so many veterans this time,“ he said.
“The veteran players are the base of the team, and then the confidence of the players comes together to form one whole like a puzzle.”
Nagatomo is approaching the end of a career that few in the history of Japanese football can match.
After making his World Cup debut in 2010, he moved to Italy and made 170 league appearances for Inter Milan.
He also played for Galatasaray and Marseille before returning to FC Tokyo in the J-League last year.
Nagatomo has shown signs of waning stamina and he would likely have arrived in Qatar as a back-up had first-choice left-back Yuta Nakayama not suffered a season-ending injury on the eve of the tournament.
Now he could well start Japan’s game against Costa Rica on Sunday on the opposite side of defence after right-back Hiroki Sakai picked up a knock against Germany.
“I’m prepared to play in whatever position,“ said Nagatomo, who has 139 caps for Japan.
He will not be difficult to spot if he does feature against Costa Rica, racing up and down the flank with his streak of red hair.
Nagatomo has said he may try a different colour if Japan reach the quarter-finals for the first time, but for the time being he is stuck with it.
“My family think it’s fine, but what else are they going to say?” he said.
“If they say they don’t like it, there’s not much I can do about it now.” – AFP