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Olympics: Japan-Nigeria soccer showdown marks comeback for Nakajima

Shoya Nakajima shoots during the match between Japan and Nigeria at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, at the Amazon Arena in Manaus, Brazil, on Aug. 4, 2016. (Mainichi)

MANAUS, Brazil -- Shoya Nakajima on Aug. 4 local time made his first appearance in an official match for Japan since an injury four months ago, wearing his No. 10 jersey in a nine-goal battle with Nigeria at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Japan lost, though not without strong attacking play from the 21-year-old midfielder.

At the 23 minute mark, Nakajima, who is just 164 centimeters tall, found a gap on the left side of the field and fired off a right-footed shot, but the ball bounced off a defender. He went on to help set up Japan's third goal before being substituted in the 31st minute of the second half. Nakajima said he wasn't nervous, but remained critical of his own play.

"I want to enjoy my time on the pitch more. I should've played more aggressively," he said.

Nakajima had been fascinated with European soccer since elementary school. When he learned that Brazilian star Ronaldinho had practiced at home, decided to do the same, competing for the ball with his dog, dribbling between chairs set up to represent opposing players, and even sleeping with a soccer ball in his hands.

His motto is, "If it's not fun, it's not soccer." He got his inspiration from European soccer, where the best players also seemed to be the ones having the most fun and entertaining the spectators. He believes that ideas for play come from enjoyment.

Starting with an international match in January 2014, Nakajima had continued to wear the No. 10 jersey. In April this year, however, he injured his right knee during practice and was told he would need five weeks to fully recover. He was back in action for a friendly at the end of June against South Africa, wearing a No. 13 jersey. He scored two goals in the first half of that game, and with its victory in that match, the Blue Samurai gained a berth at the games.

For the Olympics, Nakajima returned to his familiar No. 10 uniform. Always thankful to his mother Kozue, who raised him by herself and watched from the stands, he says, "I want to win a medal and bring it home to make her happy." (By Tadashi Murakami and Takuya Izawa, Mainichi Shimbun)

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