A group of scouts looked intently upon the football pitch in Japan’s Toyota Stadium, and they could all be seen jotting down notes, collectively seeking to unearth the next great footballing prospect to propel their clubs to dreams of silverware.
But where they all contemplated the virtues of the different players, a smartly-dressed figure was among them – carrying a satisfied smile on his face as he knew he would be one step closer to a successful journey back to Singapore. He made a mental check off his scouting wishlist.
He had found his Number 10.
I found myself shaking hands with one of the Singapore Premier League’s top players, Tampines Rovers’ Kyoga Nakamura, one blistering afternoon, and I didn’t quite know what to expect – as with all new meetings. Little did I know, the warmth exuded from the midfielder might have rivalled that of the 3PM sun.
“Hello! How are you?” Kyoga greeted me with the same enthusiasm as you would if you had met an old friend. We quickly escaped the blazing heat into air-conditioned comfort as I prepared to roast him with questions for this very interview. How fitting.
When Kyoga turned one, his parents bought him his first birthday present – a mini football. He would find a natural affinity to his new gift, constantly kicking and throwing the ball whenever he had the chance to do so.
Seeing his son’s instinctive love for the sport, he decided to step in, coaching him up to the age of 8.
“My father was a player until high school” Kyoga mentioned, as I began to understand the important place football had in his family. His parents were very strict on him as he started on his footballing career, but it became better as he blossomed into a fine young talent, successful converting those kicking instincts into foundational footballing motions and skills.
There was, however, one ‘stumbling block’ along the way.
“There are two football clubs in Chiba, and my family supports Kashiwa Reysol. But when I (was chosen to) join a (youth academy) team, I joined JEF Chiba instead!” In essence, the midfielder joined the ranks of the ‘wrong’ team and side of town, in a Chiba city rivalry dating back to 1941.
As we shared a laugh, I curiously quipped “What’s your favourite team now then?“
“I like Barcelona because of Guardiola!” Kyoga exclaimed.
“He’s now in Man City, though!” I noted.
He laughed, “Yes, so I support Man City now!”
Touché, my new friend. Touché.
The scouts were free to have their pick, but one player had always been singled out from the very beginning of the session. The apple of his eye. The cream of the crop.
After the J-League trial, he went up to Kyoga and asked to join his hand-picked team of Japanese starlets. The man in question, would turn out to be Albirex Niigata Singapore’s ex-chairman, and now CEO, Daisuke Korenaga.
“Be my captain. Be my Number 10.”
The World Stage
I sipped on my (much-needed) Iced Yuzu Tea, as Kyoga shared details about the biggest stage he graced in his young career so far – the U-17 World Cup held in the United Arab Emirates.
“We played (against) very good teams. Some were number 1-2 in their region.” He wasn’t wrong, Japan faced formidable teams in the group stages, Tunisia, Russia, Venezuela, but topped the group – thanks no less to the midfield maestro’s efforts. They narrowly lost out to eventual bronze-medallists Sweden, in a 2-1 loss in the Round of 16.
When asked about how he felt about his performance, he gave the response indicative of a true leader. He thought that the skill level was similar, but the devil was in the details – it was all about pushing his team to do the small things better than the opposing sides, and it was, to him, the key to their success in the tournament.
“Fast pressing, cutting, making sure to trap (in a) collective (manner). I thought that it’s best for me to do the small things in training and I think it worked in the games.”
And in a U-17 World Cup that was to be the birthplace of a certain Kelechi Iheanacho (he won the MVP of the tournament), every small advantage would prove the difference maker. He also relished representing the Samurai Blue for the first time on the world stage.
“Listening to the national anthem (and) looking out into the cheering crowd, I was a bit emotional and almost cried!”
However, in typical Kyoga fashion, he had something humorous to report as well.
“The camera (taking the live video of us during the anthem ceremony) had no zoom! It was so near, almost to my nose, so I had to keep a serious face as it passed by.”
And he wouldn’t be away from the cameras for long.
“Be my Number 10.”
Reliving the day he was scouted to Singapore by Daisuke Korenaga in 2018, he couldn’t help but smile. “He said that he liked my play and my (mentality), and I still keep in touch with him (now). On asking what made him enjoy the number 10 role so much, he brought up a personal hero – compatriot and fellow attacking midfielder, Shunsuke Nakamura.
‘He can maintain the ball and he is a very clever player. I like the way he shoots (as well).’ One would think that the legendary midfielder would be proud that the Nakamura name is still flying high now, some 5,200 kilometres away, here in Singapore.
After a standout performance as the White Swan’s captain and number 10, earning nominations both for the Goal of the Year as well as the Young Player of the Year awards, he was poached to join Tampines Rovers FC, where he now calls home.
And with new homes, come new friends – though most of his ex-teammates in Albirex had gone back to Japan, he found a likely companion in another captain, Tampines’ skipper Yasir Hanapi.
“He is a clever player, and has the best skills in the team, and maybe (even) the league! Some players are just fast, but it’s difficult to have a player that is clever, good at positioning and I like that (about him). Also, I don’t know why, but every time when we go abroad, they put us (together as) roommates! So he is one of my best friends.”
He also mentioned other Stags, such as ex-teammate Shah Shahiran, and lamented losing him to National Service, “He maintained both the attack and defense (of the team)!” Fellow midfielder Zehrudin Mehmedović is also a close buddy, but one would think that with his infectious positivity, the Japanese star would be a locker room favourite.
As we finished up our lunch, I asked about his life in Singapore, and how he’s felt about it in the past 2 years.
“Last time, I was scared to (live) overseas because I never stayed in another country. I love Singapore because it’s a very clean city and has a lot of kind people.” He brings up a certain incident that surprised me.
“When my wife was pregnant, people saw and gave up their seat (on the train or bus), but in Japan, they didn’t do that.”
When asked why, he pondered about the extreme working culture in Japan, “Maybe now(adays) people are very tired from going to work. Many people think Japanese people are very kind, but I think Singapore people are more kind!”
He also mentioned how he liked the melting pot of cultures here in Singapore, and how it naturally exists in the teams here too.
Fittingly, his favourite foods are equally as diverse – Kyoga rattled off a laundry list of Singaporean favourites – Hokkien Mee, Chicken Rice, Briyani, Laksa, Ma La, Prawn Noodles. He even brought up a time when he was invited to his other best friend, teammate Madhu Mohana’s house during the New Year.
“He cooked Indian food, and it was very delicious, but it was a little bit spicy! But now (after eating more Singaporean dishes), I got used to it (the spiciness).”
His recommendation for a Malay food spot in Singapore was no surprise to any football lover living in Tampines – Hassan Sunny’s restaurant ‘Dapur Hassan’.
“I like the Mee Rebus!” he exclaimed. “But if I go back to Japan (today), I will eat sushi first. In Singapore, it’s too expensive!” You and I both, Kyoga-san.
Today, with his newborn daughter, and wife here in Singapore, he dreams about the future and what it has in store, but even so, he never forgets his past.
Armed with a goal celebration of both hands making ‘V’s to form a ‘W’ shape, it represents the Japanese concept of 二人 (futari) – a tribute to two individuals who were incredibly close to a 10-year old Kyoga, his cousin and best friend, who both unfortunately passed on within the span of a year.
Refusing to be consumed by this grief, he instead decided to champion their spirits on the field – “My cousin told me everyday : You will be a professional football player, so (my goal celebration) is a message I send to them.”
Carrying this into every game gives him the strength and motivation to find the back of the net, and to always give it his all on the pitch.
In closing, he also mused about the possibility of his daughter following in his footsteps as well, to which Kyoga responded,
“Maybe (I can pass her) my Number 10 in the ladies team!”
It sure seems the Nakamura flame isn’t going out anytime soon, and, as I’m reminded as I left Our Tampines Hub after the interview, neither will the Singapore summer.
All photos provided by Kyoga Nakamura, credit to J-League Photos, AIA Singapore Premier League, Tampines Rovers and Albirex Niigata Singapore.
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