The death of former national team defender Naoki Matsuda at the age of 34 is still weighing heavily on the Japanese soccer industry. Matsuda suffered a heart attack during practice on Aug. 2, and died two days later.
A loner, Matsuda was not one to hide his emotions. Although he outclassed other Japanese international defenders technically and physically, he still seemed somewhat naive. That's why he was such a unique character who stood out and was beloved by his teammates and fans.
Matsuda often competed with Hidetoshi Nakata, who was also born in 1977. The two joined the national team at the same time. They gained experience on the global stage together and often seemed to be testing each other.
When Nakata failed to receive a strong, speedy pass from Matsuda during a match, Matsuda blamed Nakata, saying, "This is the global standard."
Nakata shot back, "Give me a better pass."
The two polished each other's techniques by engaging in serious battles, even during practice.
Despite his bold streak, Matsuda was also sensitive. During his years playing for the Yokohama F Marinos, he was upset after opponents said, "Attack Matsuda's side." Matsuda skipped practice for three days after discussing this with a team official. Matsuda's clashes with national side head coaches may have also been due to his no-nonsense, straightforward personality.
Matsuda was part of the national team that was leading Japan onto the global stage. When Japan competed in the Olympic soccer event for the first time in 28 years at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Japan beat Brazil 1-0. At the 2002 World Cup finals, Japan made it to the last 16.
Masakuni Yamamoto, a former national team assistant coach who had been instructing Matsuda since he was a youth team member, says: "He was so far ahead of the times. … He was a player who made us think he could do lots of amazing things the stronger the opponents are."
No one knows how Matsuda spent his last days. Because he was suspended from a JFL game on July 30, he returned to Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, after watching a J1 game. On July 31, he took part in a practice match and took Aug. 1 off.
How did he spend time until practice on Aug. 2, and how was his health? The soccer industry should investigate all the details in order to prevent a recurrence of such a tragedy. That's what Matsuda would have wanted.
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