In his spare time away from the soccer pitch, Yuto Nagatomo likes to go for a stroll through a nearby luxury boutique district near his home in Milan, Italy, located on the top floor of a stately apartment building with an air of history to it.
He guides me to a guest room where the balmy rays of the May sun filter in, and large white potted flowers greet visitors. A pale purple flower arrangement sits on a coffee table in front of a sofa.
"I like to have beautiful things to look at, to enrich my sensibilities," he says.
On one of his days off, Nagatomo, 25, drove to Switzerland to see the mountains and lakes of the Alps, and reaffirmed his affinity for the beauty of nature.
"I've become aware of how much I've changed, little by little," he says. "Up until now I had no interest in flowers whatsoever, but lately I've really taken to them."
Nagatomo's earnest and single-minded personality has remained unchanged from when he was first selected for the Japan men's soccer team in 2008 and rose to prominence. Recently, perhaps due to his ever-smiling nature, he has a look of assurance about him.
A TEST OF A MAN'S METTLE
I interviewed him just as the 2011-2012 season of Serie A, Italy's premier soccer league, was drawing to a close. His club, Internazionale (commonly known as Inter Milan), was suffering a poor run of form, and ultimately finished sixth out of 20 in the division. The manager's mantle changed hands twice during the season.
Inter Milan was founded in 1908. It has been crowned champion of Italy on 18 occasions, and Europe three times. Its fans demand nothing less than victory, and each of the players are expected to be the best at their position. The weight of such expectations and the degree of interest in the team's fortunes is beyond comparison with any of the clubs that Nagatomo previously played for.
He is the first Japanese to secure a regular first team berth at a club of this stature. The day-to-day battle with this pressure is greater than he had imagined.
"Playing with something so huge hanging over your shoulder makes making mistakes that much more terrifying," he admits. "The ones who survive are those who can not only keep that feeling under control, but take it on courageously as a challenge."
If you can do that, you'll succeed. The problem is whether you have the courage to do so. Nagatomo feels as if his mettle as a man is being tested.
This is especially the case when his team isn't winning. Some players wilt in the face of criticism, and they are the ones who quickly lose their place on the team.
Players who have cemented their star status at the club, such as Inter's captain and former Argentine international Javier Zanetti, manage to maintain a positive outlook at all times. By observing them, Nagatomo is attempting to become a more accomplished player himself. When I asked him about his current goal, he replied without hesitation.
"There's nothing special about playing well when your team is in good form," he says. "I think of how I can make myself shine when the team is playing poorly."
Specifically, he is talking about improving his team's scoring chances when he joins an attack from his fullback position. In the 2011-2012 season when he found himself more preoccupied with defense, his team became more vulnerable to an opposition goal when he recklessly charged forward, and this desire to help his team win became a factor in his team's defeats. Pushing up the field aggressively is not always playing smart soccer on this level.
Nagatomo has to improve his skill and judgment. However, that alone is not enough. What does he have to do to seize even a slim opportunity to change the flow of a game? As he continued to ask himself this question, he realized that he needed to find flashes of inspiration on the pitch.
In order to do so, he has to hone his sensibilities. That is what motivates his attempts to gain a greater appreciation of natural and artistic beauty, which might otherwise seem irrelevant to a sport such as soccer.
SURPASSING EVEN KEISUKE HONDA
Back when Nagatomo was a junior high student in Ehime Prefecture, there was a time when he spent a lot of time in video arcades. He became a first team regular for his high school, which was a soccer powerhouse, but remained mostly inconspicuous. In university he sustained an injury that forced him to spend his first year banging a drum in the cheerleading squad. Back then, if he had said that he would sign for Inter Milan one day, no one would have believed him.
He went on to play in the Universiade, a multi-sports tournament organized by the International University Sports Federation, and worked his way up from the Japan men's team at the Beijing Olympics to the full national side. His ascension was not without an element of luck, but he was able to take chances when they were presented to him for the very reason that he believed in his own potential and constantly strove to improve himself.
His conditioning of his abdominal and hip muscles surpasses even that of CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda, his international teammate, who is known for being a fierce competitor. His ability to play with an innate understanding of his role in the team became an invaluable asset once he began plying his trade in Europe.
"I was brought up by a single parent," Nagatomo says. "I want to repay my mother who gave her all to raise me. There's a lot of baggage I carry with me. Without it, I couldn't have worked as hard as I have."
Nagatomo's parents divorced when he was in his third year of elementary school. His mother, Rie, 50, raised three children while working as a master of ceremonies for weddings, funerals and all manner of special events. When Nagatomo told her he wanted to attend a private high school outside of Ehime, she supported his decision despite the financial hardship it entailed.
"My father was a professional cyclist on the keirin circuit," Rie says. "Yuto is small physically, but his emotional disposition suited him to becoming an athlete, so I believed there was a chance he would go on to achieve something."
If you can make it through tough times, something significant awaits on the horizon. Rie still tells her son this now that he is playing at the pinnacle of the world game. The strength of her belief comes from her experience of divorce, a major turning point in her life. At first she did not want a divorce, for the sake of her children. However, she states unequivocally: "It was a decision that came after I had done the very best I could, so I don't regret it."
That is why she told her son not to hide the fact that he was raised by a single mother. "There must be people out there who will be encouraged and will support you when they hear about it."
Nagatomo has inherited his mother's ability to view his own circumstances with a positive outlook. "I want to live like my mother does," he says.
His ultimate goal on the pitch is "to become the number one fullback in the world."
However, he is not talking about winning a title such as FIFA's (the International Federation of Association Football) annual Ballon d'Or. "It's whether I'm number one in the world in human terms as well. Whether I can think of myself in that way."
Nagatomo's goal is far away, but within his sights. What's more, he believes that he can reach it.
* * *
Born in 1986 in Saijo city, Ehime Prefecture. After graduating from Higashi Fukuoka High School, he enrolled at Meiji University. Although his soccer career had been unspectacular until then, he went from strength to strength after switching from midfield to defense in his sophomore year, and was selected to represent Japan at the Universiade. In his third year, he gained recognition for his ability after training with J.League side FC Tokyo, and played for the club in official matches. This led him to quit the university team and sign professional forms with FC Tokyo. He subsequently played for the under-23 Japan men's team at the Beijing Olympics and moved up to the full national side, making a name for himself at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Later that summer he moved to Italian Serie A club Cesena on loan, and in January 2011 he completed a full transfer to Internazionale of Milan. To date he has played 49 matches for Japan, scoring three goals.
Favorite book: "Michi o Hiraku" (open the way) by Konosuke Matsushita. Nagatomo reads it during plane flights to away matches. He also occasionally re-reads his own autobiography, "Nippon Danji" (a Japanese boy), which has also been published in Italian, as a way of rethinking himself. He says it helps him to remember what he was thinking when he faced obstacles in his life. His second book, "Josho Shiko" (upbeat thinking), was published in May.
Favorite saying: "Success adorns the human facade, failure enriches the soul." These words come from a letter he received from his grandmother.
Spare time: Previously, he concentrated on taking a break from physical exertion and relaxed at home. Recently, he has been going out on walks more often to refresh himself mentally.
- « Prev
- Next »