Hideki Nagai was one of the most well-travelled players in the J.League during its first two decades of existence. In an era when most top players would stay at the team that first sign them for most of their career (or at least until their skills began to fade), Nagai changed teams ten times, and had three separate stints at Verdy.
Though never a particularly dangerous scorer himself, Nagai excelled as a set-up man in the attacking midfield, and was one of the first Japanese players to develop the mold for a "shireito", or midfield organizer, which would later be perfected by individuals such as Hide Nakata, Shinji Ono and Shunsuke Nakamura. He was good at holding the ball in midfield and then delivering precision through passes to a cutting teammate. Though no data on assists is available, he probably would have been one of the league's leaders in its first four or five years.
However, it was the final few years of Nagai's career which would be most memorable to fans, as the ageless midfielder retired time and time again, only to be enticed and coerced back onto the pitch for "one last season" in what became almost an annual ritual. Following his long and sparkling career which included stints at Verdy in their championship seasons, a berth on the Yokohama Flugels' flight into history, in 1998 (Nagai was one of two players whose photograph, holding the Emperor's Cup aloft, is most closely associated with the Flugels' final farewell), and a return to Tokyo Verdy in his final two years before "retirement".
But after a year spent relaxing in his Kyushu home town, as a new retiree, Nagai was prevailed upon to come back as a "role model" at Kyushu-based Oita Trinita, who were just getting established in the J1. Although he played only four matches, the coaches thought his contributions on the practice pitch were invaluable in guiding some of the youngsters, and it was only with difficulty that he persuaded the team to let him retire again, at the end of 2004.
This time, Nagai only managed to last a few months as a retiree. Soon thereafter his old teammate and close friend, Ruy Ramos, talked him into joining Okinawan-based FC Ryukyu. Ramos had developed many friendships while coaching at Kariyushi FC, a year or two earlier, and many of the players from the Kariyushi team were central to the creation of Ryukyu FC. When the team asked for help in finding an experienced player who could still get around the pitch a bit, and could help teach young players the ropes, Ramos immediately suggested Nagai.
After his stint in Okinawa, Nagai again bid farewell to football, and prepared to knock back some cool drinks on a beach somewhere . . . but once again, Ruy Ramos had other plans. At the start of 2006, Ramos had just taken over as head coach of Tokyo Verdy, and again he needed a player who was still fit enough to get around the pitch, but savvy and intelligent enough to provide guidance to those around him. Ramos managed to convince Nagai not once, but TWICE, to join Verdy in mid-season and provide some balance for an unruly team. And Nagai proved his agelessness by making 18 appearances and scoring four times in 2007.
In 2008 Nagai once again packed away his cleats and headed off to spend some time on the golf course or the beach. This time he was adamant that he was retiring. But sure enough, Nagai's love of the Beautiful Game lured him back yet again, first to Okinawa (for five seasons) and then back to Verdy to cap off his career (?) in 2014.
Though never a true "superstar" on the pitch, his influence on other players over some 20 years, at ten separate teams, made him a verifiable superstar in the locker room, and in the hearts of his fans.