IMAGINE this, if you will. The scene is a newspaper office in Scotland, the sports desk of a red-top to be precise. On the television in the corner of the room, Celtic are playing against... well, it doesn't really matter who they're playing. The point is that Shunsuke Nakamura is standing over a free-kick and already the headline writers know that he's going to score. Like the glory shot at Rugby Park that won the title, they just know.
Even before the ball hits the net, they're thinking of their back-page options.
Empire of the Shun!
"No, we used that the last time."
Suke the Nuke!
"Nah, had that already."
"Had that twice."
It's not easy coming up with clever new ways to describe Nakamura's ability at free-kicks, Kimono Over To My Place being a case in point. He is a worldwide phenomenon over a dead ball, his consistency in the art as impressive as anybody we've ever seen in the game. Time and again I find myself watching his dramatic strike against Manchester United at Celtic Park and being mesmerised by its quality. The distance he was from goal, the height the ball reached as it soared over the wall, the dip and swerve into the top corner of Edwin van de Sar's net. It was beautiful. Just beautiful. Watch it ten times on the re-run and on the 11th you'll still be startled by it. But then, masterpieces never lose their facility to amaze, do they? So we struggle to come up with words to capture his essence, but for some a single one will do.
Genius. That's the word Gordon Strachan uses most often when talking about Nakamura. "We're lucky to have a genius on board," said the manager after the championship was won at Kilmarnock. "Genius," he said again after Nakamura helped Celtic beat Aberdeen at Pittodrie. "We're witnessing a genius at work," he remarked when Livingston were beaten in the cup. "The man's a genius, a true genius," he declared after Nakamura stole a point against Dundee United in December.
Sure enough, the midfielder has gathered every award going this season. Jim Duffy said in this newspaper a few weeks back that Nakamura deserved the prizes simply for providing us with some exhilarating moments in what has been a drab season and it's hard to argue against that. But is he the player his manager says he is? Is he a genius? And if he is, what does that make Kaka?
Nakamura has many qualities; his work ethic is fabulous, his modesty endearing, his honesty beyond question. As a professional, he's an example to kids, a role model you just know won't let you down. He doesn't drink, doesn't go out much from what we know. On the evening the championship was won at Rugby Park, he left the celebrations early to go home to his family. His wife baked a cake. Nice image, that. Nakamura's principles belong more in a bygone age than in the world of today. He's a throwback.
You get the impression that he's embarrassed by his manager's boasts. Grateful, but a little unworthy. Maybe that's part of why Strachan loves him so. He's innocent. In a game that is full of bluffers and braggarts, Nakamura is a quiet guy who works hard and then goes home to the wife and kids, the polar opposite of the yobs and the yob culture Strachan so detests.
Perhaps Strachan is allowing his admiration for Nakamura as a man to influence his verdict on Nakamura as a player. Surely the judge of his true worth can be found in the Champions League and in Old Firm games and not in the routine matches of the SPL, where you expect a player like him to thrive. In Europe and in tussles with Rangers, Nakamura is unproven. He has scored two goals against Manchester United that will live in the annals but has he contributed much else? He won a penalty against Copenhagen and was involved in one of Kenny Miller's goals against Benfica. That's a decent contribution but is it enough from a player of genius? Were his quiet evenings against Milan not proof that he has some way to go before living up to his manager's billing? Is he, for example, any better than his predecessor as Scottish player of the year, Shaun Maloney? We say no. They're different players, of course, but their impact on Celtic has been similar. Nakamura has scored 11 goals this season (one less than Charlie Adam) and has provided the killer pass for 12 more goals (three more than Merouane Zemmama at Hibs). That's good going in anybody's book but it's hardly unique. Last season Maloney scored 13 times and assisted with 11 more and, from memory, was never described as a genius. Remember, too, that Rudi Skacel and Paul Hartley both scored more goals from midfield in 2005/06 than Nakamura has managed in 2006/07.
Are we trying to denigrate the Japanese international? No, we're not. He's been better this season than he was last season and, given his determination, there's every reason to believe that he will improve again next season. Maybe then we will see him control games more often and make a more significant impression on Europe. Greatness, alas, cannot be determined by what you do at Almondvale. It's at places like Old Trafford and at the San Siro where legacies are created. Maybe when the Champions League carnival begins anew in the autumn we will see the player Strachan talks about.
At the moment, what we see is a fine man and, on his day, a superb footballer. But we don't see a genius. We see a lot in Nakamura but we don't see that.