Entertainment, Sports

How Shunsuke Nakamura overcame the language barrier in Scotland – and why Celtic’s new Japanese trio can shine

TOWARDS the end of his first season at Celtic, Glenn Loovens was given a pre-match instruction before an important Premier League encounter with Dundee United at Parkhead that concerned him slightly.

“Garry Pendry (the assistant manager) came to me in the dressing room before kick-off and told me: ‘Glenn, I want you to go on this spot in the United six yard box at the first corner’,” said Loovens.

“I said to him: ‘Okay, but you’d better tell Naka (Shunsuke Nakamura) I’ll be there. Does he know I’m going to be there?’. It could be hard to communicate with him. Garry said: ‘Glenn, you just make sure you’re on that spot’.”

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The race for the Scottish title was intense at that late stage of the 2008/09 campaign – defending champions Celtic were a point behind leaders Rangers in the top flight table with three games remaining – and the Dutch centre half was worried his Japanese team mate would not be aware of the run he was going to make.   

His apprehension was to prove unnecessary.

“When we won our first corner in the first-half I went to the spot I had been told to go to,” said Loovens. “Naka put it straight on my head and I scored the opening goal. I just had to glance it in. He could put the ball wherever he wanted to on the park with his left foot.”

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Speaking limited English proved no impediment to Nakamura gelling with his fellow Celtic players and enjoying great success during his four years in Glasgow; the skilful midfielder won six major honours and established himself as firm fans’ favourite.

“Nakamura was a very, very good player,” said Loovens. “I knew about him before I signed for Celtic.  I could remember the free-kick he scored against Manchester United in the Champions League in 2006 so I realised he had a good left foot.

“But when I joined Celtic and started training with him every day and playing with him I could see he was something special. I can’t remember him ever giving the ball away in training, even on boxes. If you played a bad ball to him he made it into a good ball. He was an exceptional player.”

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He added: “As I mentioned, it could be hard to communicate with Nakamura at times. But he had a translator with him all the time, 24/7 basically. Whenever you saw him at the training ground or at the stadium his translator was next to him. So you could speak to him through the translator.

“But a funny thing happened shortly after he left Celtic and joined Espanyol in Spain in 2009. I played for the Netherlands in a friendly against Japan in Enschede and Naka was involved as well.

“I can remember at half-time he came over to me and said: “Hello Glenn! Are you okay?’ I said: ‘You can speak English! I knew it!’ Without his translator with him he had to try. His English wasn’t great, but he had some. But it was never a problem at Celtic.”

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The defender, who retired from playing two years ago and is now working with the Belgian players’ agency Let’s Play, has not been surprised by the major impact that Kyogo Furuhashi has made since moving to Celtic in a £4.6m transfer from Vissel Kobe in his homeland back in July.

The 27-year-old, like his illustrious predecessor, does not have a firm grasp of the English language. But he has netted 16 times in all competitions and quickly endeared himself to supporters.

Loovens is certain the Japanese trio who have just joined Furuhashi at Parkhead – the signing of Reo Hatate, Yosuke Ideguchi and Daizen Maeda was confirmed on Friday – will have no difficulty adapting to their new surroundings either.

He can recall how the presence of Koki Mizuno in the Celtic squad was good for Nakamura even though the young winger was unable to make the same sort of impression on the park as his revered compatriot. 

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“It was great for Naka having Koki there,” he said. “They had both come from a different continent, not just country, to Scotland. So it was beneficial to them both having somebody with the same background.

“They were both far away from their family and friends. If they were feeling homesick at any time they could speak to each other about how they were feeling.

“Koki was the opposite of Nakamura. He spoke a little bit of English and really got in amongst us. He was a different kind of character. Outside of football I didn’t know Nakamura. He was a nice guy, but he was a very private individual who kept himself to himself.

“Of course, Naka did well at Celtic when he was the only Japanese player. But I think Furuhashi, Hatate, Ideguchi and Maeda will all appreciate having Japanese players to speak to and spend time with outside of training.”

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Loovens, who won the League Cup, Scottish Cup and Premier League during his four seasons at Celtic, is well aware that performing well on the park will be far more important to the new signings than settling off it.

However, the former Feyenoord, Cardiff City, Real Zaragoza, Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland defender is confident they will be able to do both and help Ange Postecoglou’s men, who lifted the Premier Sports Cup last month thanks to a Furuhashi double, claim more silverware this term. 

He suspects that one of the reasons that the striker has excelled is that Postecoglou, who spent three years in charge of J League outfit Yokohama F Marinos before moving to Glasgow in the summer, understands the mentality of Japanese players.  

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“I imagine these three players will all do well for Celtic,” he said. “In general Japanese people are very disciplined. You could see that in how Nakamura conducted himself.

“The good thing is the manager has worked with Maeda and knows the other two well because he coached in Japan. There won’t be any surprises for him. He knows what Japanese players are like, understands their mindset. He brought over Furuhashi in the summer and that has worked out well.

“At Celtic you are expected to win every game. You need to be a good footballer of course, but you have to be able to handle a bit of pressure and show a bit of character. But I am sure the manager is confident that these players can cope.”

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