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Kuala Lumpur: In the wake of Shinji Okazaki winning the 2016 AFC Asian International Player of the Year award, join the as we begin our 'Asian Icons' series by highlighting the player who arguably did more than most to pave the way for Japan and indeed Asia's finest to play in the west - Hidetoshi Nakata.

Asian Icon: Hidetoshi Nakata

Age: 40
Clubs Played For: Bellmare Hiratsuka, Perugia, Roma, Parma, Bologna, Fiorentina, Bolton Wanderers
International Apperances (Goals): 77 (11)
AFC Player of the Year: 1997, 1998

When Hidetoshi Nakata hung up his boots at the tender age of 29, it was difficult for most fans of Asian football to contemplate life without the talented Japan international.

After a career which saw him grace the elite stages of both Italy's Serie A and England's Premier League, the Kofu-born superstar's surprising decision to retire immediately after the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, ensured that Japan's 4-1 defeat to Brazil would be the last time this unique midfielder pulled on a shirt as a professional player.

In an age when an ever growing list of the continent's finest continue to carve out a career for themselves in Europe, Nakata has quite rightly been hailed as the catalyst for their nomadic lifestyles, a figurehead who, throughout his career, also provided ely what Asia's millions of football fans were crying out for - a tangible sign that Asians could more than hold their own in European football's rarefied atmosphere.

"As a professional athlete, I believe that I need to explore my opportunities to the maximum, in order to excel and continue to play the best football I can." - Hidetoshi Nakata prior to his retirement

When the former Japanese captain moved from the relative anonymity of Bellemare Hiratsuka to Italian outfit Perugia in 1998 following that year's World Cup in France, he almost single-handedly instilled the belief amongst his colleagues that Europe's myriad of top-flight clubs, until then viewed as closed shops to Asia's superstar footballers, were now well and truly open for business.

In a part of the planet where climate, different cultures and, at times, radically different playing systems, would ultimately prove too much for Asian luminaries such as Sami Al Jaber, Ma Mingyu, Karim Bagheri and Baichung Bhutia, Nakata went from strength to strength.

In 2000 he joined Roma where, as with Perugia, his employers revelled in the fact that Nakata not only brought a suitcase full of skill with him, but also a Japanese media interest the likes of which Italy had never seen before.

With the two-time Asian Football Confederation Player of the Year also responsible for flight after flight of tourists from his homeland making pilgrimages to the Italian capital in a bid to see their hero in action, it was quickly dawning on all and sundry that this particular manga loving role model was installing himself as the new, improved and, just as importantly, successful face of Asian football.

Twelve months on and, having helped the Giallorossi bag a league title, Nakata made a big money move to Parma before touching down in both Bologna and Fiorentina prior to a season in England with Bolton Wanderers.

Never conventional and always a keen follower of fashion, it was apparent that the Nakata on view in Florence and at the Reebok Stadium was not the same person who had started out on a glorious European adventure some eight years earlier. A fallout with his Florentine chairman saw him shipped out on loan to the Trotters where, if the truth be told, he singularly failed to set the world on fire.

Perhaps, considering Japan bowed out of the World Cup early courtesy of a disappointing group campaign and that his work at club level had not been going according to plan, we should not be surprised that one of Asia's greatest decided to call time on his career when he did.

Often wracked by self doubt and forever curious as to why people paid good money to watch a game of football, Nakata's decision also becomes more understandable after he revealed that only when the whistle blew at the end of his last ever game did he actually realise how much football meant to him - an emotion that had, apparently, been missing for many years.

Passionate or not, Nakata will always be regarded as a trailblazer, a player who broke down barriers and made European clubs realise that imports from Asia are much more than just marketing tools.

Asian football has undoubtedly survived Nakata's premature retirement. It has continued to grow and new players have emerged to give the continent's football fans many more memorable days.

However, with a steady stream of Asian talent continuing to ply their trade overseas and, at the same time, further enhancing Asia's reputation on the global stage , it is hoped that the current crop of exports spare a moment to reflect on the ground-breaking work done by those who went before them, not least Nakata - a true Asian Icon.

Photos: AFP