Foreign Leagues

Nagatomo’s Inter Love Affair Ends – He’ll Be Hard To Replace

 • by Adam Digby
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In one of deadline day’s least covered pieces of news, Yuto Nagatomo finally ended his time with Inter, moving to Turkish club Galatasaray after a loan deal was agreed with the Milanese giants.

He does so after spending seven years at San Siro, a place where he was never truly trusted yet where countless thousands of people went solely to see him play.

During his stint with the Nerazzurri, the 31-year-old was constantly mobbed by fans from his native Japan – although many left the imposing old stadium disappointed after their idol remained an unused substitute.

Just as Keisuke Honda’s stint with cross town rivals AC Milan was closely followed, Nagatomo was also stalked by a plethora of Japanese journalists, all sent to the Italian city simply to report on the performance of their compatriot.

Given that he has not started twenty matches in any of the past three seasons, it is hard to imagine quite what those journalists managed to say about him, but then Nagatomo’s story has always been anything but ordinary.

Born in Saijō, a sprawling suburb at the foot of Mount Ishizuchi, he could have followed his grandfather and been a professional cyclist, but it was the football pitch not the velodrome that always attracted him.

Nagatomo studied at the historic Meiji University, eventually graduating with a laureate in political and economic sciences. It is incredible to think that as recently as 2007, the university team was the only one he had played for.

He moved from there to the J-League, spending four seasons at FC Tokyo where – as well as starring for the national team – his form prompted Italian minnows Cesena to bring him to Europe in July 2010.

Following just sixteen appearances for the side that had only been promoted to Serie A that summer, Inter expressed an interest in Nagatomo. They would eventually sign him, sending the Davide Santon in the opposite direction. The new man quickly established himself as the club’s first choice left back.

That he did so without any understanding of the Italian language was remarkable – a teammate once had to physically drag him across the pitch when he mistakenly lined up at left-back despite Cesena boss Massimo Ficcadenti telling him he was playing on the opposite flank.

Despite Inter struggling and constantly changing managers following his arrival, Nagatomo survived the upheaval, however, eventually he was replaced in the starting XI.

Yet in February 2015 – and despite not being first-choice  – he turned down an approach from Manchester United, citing his “love of Inter” as the major factor in his decision.

That bond between club and player was fully on display a year later when Nagatomo proposed to Japanese actress Airi Taira on the field. And when the 2017/18 campaign began, it seemed as if his time on the fringes of the squad were finally over.

Luciano Spalletti put his faith in the Japanese star and gave him regular game time, only to then make him one of the scapegoats for a downturn in form, dropping the defender when results dipped in December.

And unable to get back into the side, his time at Inter was, for the time being, brought to an end.

“Today a new adventure begins,” Nagatomo wrote on Twitter shortly after the deal with Galatasaray was announced. “I wanted to thank and salute everyone. I am proud to have worn this shirt for seven years full of emotions.

“Good luck to the coach and my team-mates in qualifying for the Champions League. I love you so much.”

That his last start came in a derby clash with Milan will not be lost on many, but it is perhaps for his off-field contributions that Nagatomo’s time with Inter shall be best remembered. He joked around with Antonio Cassano, was close friends Wesley Sneijder and Ivan Perisic, and refered to Javier Zanetti as his Senpai, the Japanese word for a mentor or teacher.

Cassano made fun of him for a yogurt advert he’d made for Japanese television, he and Sneijder would celebrate goals by bowing to one another in respect. Perisic, meanwhile, posted pictures mocking his socks: “So those are the reason you make mistakes with all your passes,” wrote the Croatian winger.

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It seems Nagatomo will be sorely missed, a presence in the dressing room that will be hard to replace. Goalkeeper Samir Handanovic might be glad of a new room-mate, however, revealing to La Gazzetta dello Sport that on away trips he is often “trying to sleep early while Yuto is watching football and shouting at the television!”

Yet Nagatomo also made a contributios on the pitch. He seemed back to his best when things were going well for Inter in the first few months of the current campaign. Assured and defensively solid, it is not without irony that after replacing Santon at Inter seven years ago, it is the former Newcastle man now keeping him out of the side.

Nagatomo moves on having made 210 appearances in the black and blue stripes, doing so for an astonishing ten different coaches, but he will have no shortage of people at Galatasaray to reminisce with about his time on the peninsula.

Coach Fatih Terim was once in charge of Fiorentina and Milan, while goalkeeper Fernando Muslera spent four years with Lazio before joining the Turkish giants.

Sadly there will be no reunion with Sneijder, the Dutchman departed for Nice last summer before signing a lucrative deal in Qatar, but the new arrival will surely find someone to share a laugh with.  

Whether he does or not, there will be a sudden uptake of tickets from Japan, a new group of journalists in the press box, and Nagatomo might even line up on the correct side of the pitch this time too. 

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