On August 4th at 13:06pm, Naoki Matsuda, a man that gave us 16 years of his playing career and a countless number of unforgettable memories, left this world at the tender age of 34 after failing to recover from a sudden cardiac arrest that befell him 2 days prior whilst on a routine training session with his new club Matsumoto Yamaga in Nagano.
These past few days has been a time of deep reflection for not just us F.Marinos fans, but for anybody that loves the beautiful game here in Japan. His passing not only saddened us all here, but many people throughout the world that knew him and enjoyed watching him play. In the wake of his sudden departure, there’s been no small amount of saddened comments from former teammates and coaches that fondly remember the time they shared with him. A great many wonderful blog posts and articles written about Naoki and the kind of person he was and what he achieved during his criminally short life have been filling the newspapers and internet alike too…
I, however, will not write about what kind of person he was. Instead, I would like to write a little about what he meant to me personally…
Like many people, I first encountered Naoki in 2002 when he was a shaggy haired, fresh-faced defender for the Japanese National team at the World Cup. I liked quite a few of the players that I saw from that team with particular exceptions being Inamoto, Ono, and of course Nakata. For some reason I couldn’t put my finger on though, my eyes always seemed to gravitate towards Naoki Matsuda. There was something about the way he played that really interested me. It might have been the tenacity with which he played that captivated me because I still distinctly remember the way he would always back-track and reclaim any ball he may have been relieved of. It was almost childish in a way, you know I swear I could hear him think “Hey! That’s mine, give it back!” as he dashed back and forth trying to collect each ball. It was obvious that he was the kind of guy that HATED losing and that was definitely something I took a shine too.
As of 2002, I still hadn’t really picked a J-League club to follow. I remember almost picking Gamba as Osaka was the first place I ever visited in Japan but, seeing as I just moved to Tokyo, a Kansai team wasn’t gonna work. It was at around this time that I recalled that Naoki Matsuda played for Yokohama F.Marinos and thus without any hesitation, I chose the F.Marinos to be my team that I would support with everything I had. In a sense, it was Naoki that brought me to the F.Marinos and prompted my move from Tokyo to Shin-Yokohama where I could be close to the club and stadium (and my now Wife who lived here, of course!).
For the first few years I rarely missed a home game and saw us win back-to-back titles and even a brief stint in the Asian Champions League. It was a good time to be a Marinos supporter and the great memories I have from that period will never leave me. Of course, an integral part of most of those memories revolved around watching our back-line and seeing Naoki take command as he kept our goal safe time and time again. One of my fondest memories of Naoki was actually back in 2007 when we were losing to Kawasaki in the the 2nd leg of the Nabisco Cup at the Todoroki. There was ten minutes left on the clock and Enomoto got sent off leaving us without a goalkeeper. I’ll never forget the ensuing moments when Naoki in total seriousness said he would go in goal and quickly went to the sideline to pick up his number 31 jersey. He wasn’t cut out for goalkeeping as you can see if you watch this….
Pretty shocking, wouldn’t you agree? 🙂
Naoki was a huge figure at the club. He was lovingly referred to as “Mr. Marinos” by fans and media alike. He was somebody that you never thought in a million years would leave the club. It was probably because of this assumption that he would always be there, that I never actually met him. I had seen him week in week out at the stadium and sometimes during training. I even saw him very up close and personal at the numerous Fan Festa’s over the years but I never made a point of queuing up to meet him and get his autograph because, well, he would always be there every year as a player, or coach, or in some other capacity. At least, that’s what I believed anyway….
It was because of these sentiments, that his retirement from the club last year had such an impact on me. Over the years, I had watched him play and supported the F.Marinos with all my might but, as a foriegner, I always subconsciously asked myself whether it was ok to be so emotionally invested in a club and city that I’m not actually from. I often wondered how much my love for the club differed to how much the native supporters loved the club.
That night however, everything became as clear as day for me. Seeing Naoki, a man originally from Gunma, say goodbye to all of us, the club, and the city that he fell in love with made me realize how much I had in common with him. It also made me realize that for the first time in my life, I had truly found my home too and also a team that I could love unconditionally aswell without feeling as if I’m betraying my own English heritage. It was as he stood on the podium and declared how much he loved football that I, for the first time in a football stadium, burst into tears as I sang with my fellow comrades.
To many of us, Naoki wasn’t just a footballer, but a comrade that we went and fought alongside with each and every week. Losing him feels very much like losing a friend.
As the news of his death slowly begins to sink in, I find myself feeling more and more lucky for having the opportunity to watch him play for nearly 8 years. My feelings of gratitude to him for sharing so much of his life with us will be something I’ll never forget. If it wasn’t for Naoki, I probably never would have chosen Yokohama as my team.
In closing, I would just like to say to Naoki, wherever you are, THANK YOU for sharing your life with us and may you continue to play football to your heart’s content up there in the heavens. You’ll always be our number 3.
For a beautifully written tribute to Naoki, we strongly recommend you all read “The Last Samurai” by Ken Matsushima over at the Rising Sun News. Ken has very kindly allowed us to link to his article so please be sure to give it a read as I’m sure it will send a shiver down your spine and bring a tear to your eye like it did me. Thanks!