Tokyo: Former Japan international defender Naoki Matsuda died on Thursday, two days after collapsing with a heart attack during training, leaving the country's shocked football community in mourning.
His sudden death aged just 34 was announced by his club Matsumoto Yamaga of the Japan Football League, the third-tier division, where he moved this year after 16 years at J-League first-division side Yokohama Marinos.
Matsuda fell into a coma after a warm-up run on Tuesday morning. He was rushed to hospital, where he was put on life support.
Fans, along with past and present teammates, flocked to the hospital in the mountain city of Matsumoto, 180 kilometres (110 miles) northwest of Tokyo, as Matsuda fought for his life. He never regained consciousness.
His death came just over two weeks after Japan's women's team won the World Cup for the first time.
"I can't believe it," said former Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura, after seeing at hospital the body of Matsuda, a former Yokohama teammate, which had been dressed in Matsumoto Yamaga's kit and in boots.
"He was dynamic in every aspect and he was a kind of big brother for everyone in a positive sense," the 33-year-old midfielder told reporters.
"A smile was on his face, making me wonder if he really could not move," Nakamura said after leaving the hospital to pay his respects.
Japan's Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni said: "I never got to know Matsuda directly but knew what a great player he was having watched him in the J-League last year."
Matsuda, who was capped 40 times for his country, had a reputation for being gutsy and was unusually tall for a Japanese at 183 centimetres (six feet)
The right-back played all four of Japan's matches at the 2002 World Cup, when the Blue Samurai reached the last 16 at home.
But his international career ended in 2005 when he fell out with then national coach and Brazilian legend Zico.
Philippe Troussier, the French coach who guided Japan through the 2002 World Cup, told the Fuji TV network: "Matsuda was a kind of loyal soldier.
"He listened attentively to what I said. He was polite and always a reliable key man in the team."
Japan Football Association technical director Hiromi Hara added: "I have managed or coached teams playing against him many times and know what a big presence he had."
Matsuda said in his farewell speech to Yokohama fans in December that he lived for the game. "Seriously, I love football for the heck of it," he said.