NEWS
04/03/2014 12:17 EDT | Updated 06/03/2014 05:59 EDT

Toronto FC midfielder Issey Nakajima-Farran and the art of soccer

TORONTO - Whether spearfishing in the blue waters off Cyprus, encountering a kangaroo on an Australian road or mulling over his latest art creation in his new Toronto home, Issey Nakajima-Farran is making the most of life.

Club soccer has taken him to Japan, Singapore, Denmark, Australia, Cyprus and now back to Canada with Toronto FC. Thirty caps for the Canadian national team have added to his globe-trotting.

"I've loved it," he said. "Getting to enjoy all these different cultures and places. You're not only there for a week on holidays or whatever, you're getting to enjoy a whole country for a whole year or two years, three years —Denmark (it was) five years.

"For me it's just been a great experience. Meeting a whole bunch of different people, enjoying different kinds of fans. For me, it's just been a dream career."

The 29-year-old midfielder's life journey is just as diverse and interesting.

Born in Calgary to a Japanese mother and a British-Canadian father (who was born in Rhodesia), he moved to Tokyo when he was three and London when he was 10. He spent his teenage years in the British capital, playing in the Crystal Palace youth system before heading to Japan to begin his pro soccer career.

For Toronto FC manager Ryan Nelsen, Nakajima-Farran adds to the depth of his roster. He's experienced, good on the ball and offers creativity in midfield.

Give him the ball in a tight space and Nakajima-Farran can dazzle. But one can argue, this soft-spoken sporting vagabond has yet to find a soccer home.

Toronto FC, which brought him into training camp this year and officially signed him last week, hopes the two are a good fit.

"He's very energetic and he's very comfortable on the ball and he can take players on," said Nelsen, who used him as a substitute in Saturday's 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake.

"He's a lovely guy," Nelsen added.

And an interesting one. Away from the soccer pitch, Nakajima-Farran paints, with portraits ranging in subject matter from Marlon Brando to the Joker.

One of his favourites — titled "Love of the Game" — shows a woman chesting a soccer ball in what looks like a beach soccer snapshot. It's available for $4,000 with limited edition prints available for $600 in different sizes.

He has sold more than two dozen works, which thanks to his career path means that Nakajima-Farran's originals are hanging around the globe.

It all started back at age 13 when he broke his ankle. His father put a paintbrush and canvas in front of him and said "OK, let's do something else."

Apart from physical education, art was about the only thing that kept his attention at school. And it remains a big part of his life today.

"It just took my mind off football," he said. "With all the crap that goes on behind (the scenes in) football, you really need something ... so you can come back training fresh."

First it was a way to decorate his apartment. Then it expanded to galleries, cafes and charity events. Fellow footballers and fans started buying his art (www.isseyfarran.com/).

He even does commission work.

"Request a painting," he said with a smile.

Asked to describe his art, Nakajima-Farran reels off a string of description: "Very urban, kind of bachelor pad, kind of big face, very powerful, black and white kind of paintings. Iconic. Just icons, whatever inspires you and you want in your living room."

An average canvas may take him 35 hours to complete.

A fan of street art and graffiti, he has opted to live downtown in one of the city's grittier, funkier sections.

Creativity runs in the family.

Nakajima-Farran's father, Kevin Farran, studied theatre and started a lunchbox theatre in central London and ran his own restaurant.

"He was a hockey player but never really had the support from his family," he said. "He gave me the support that I needed and so has my brother."

His parents now live in Barcelona. Younger brother Paris, a footballer who also played for Canada, lives in Tokyo and most of the rest of the family is in Calgary.

"That's the biggest challenge for the whole family — to get together," he lamented. "I envy the other guys that have their friends and family to the games."

He and his brother speak a mixture of Japanese and English when they get together. "We call it Japlish," he said.

He says it cuts corners and allows them to communicate faster. With his parents, he says the language depends on the scenario.

Toronto FC fans will notice Nakajima-Farran goes by just Issey on the back of his No. 20 jersey.

"I had Nakajima-Farran in Nordsjaelland (in Denmark in 2007) and it was just kind of really hard to read," he said, drawing laughs. "The letters (were) all bending, down the shoulder. I thought just keep it simple."

Nakajima-Farran, who holds Canadian, Japanese and British citizenship, speaks fluent Japanese and understands Danish and Spanish. The five-foot-10 160-pounder can't skate but loves maple butter, a little piece of Canada he craves around the world.

Nakajima-Farran is as global as his soccer career. His accent is hard to peg down, with a hint of Australian. His hair is pulled back when he plays, offering a sense of the Samurai.

Away from the pitch, in jeans, T-shirt and a toque, Nakajima-Farran looks like he could be playing guitar in an indie band.

Football took him back to Japan when, at 16, he was challenged by his father to combine education with sport. Japanese clubs offered a full education as well as football so he headed to the Far East, signing his first pro contract at 18.

While playing in Singapore, he was offered the chance to play for a Singapore under-23 team against Japan. He took up the offer, thinking of it as an opportunity to demonstrate his skills to the Japanese coach.

He scored two goals and was named man of the match but the Japan coach said he had enough talent at his disposal and just wished him well.

That proved to be Canada's gain.

"It just made more sense for me to represent Canada, even though my football career started off in Japan," he said. "Apparently I'm the first Japanese player to represent a different country."

In March 2013, Nakajima-Farran played Japan again, this time in Canada's colours in a 2-1 exhibition loss in Doha, Qatar. Despite the outcome, Nakajima-Farran called it a "dream game."

"A great honour just to be playing against them," he said.

Substitute Mike Havenaar, a Japanese-born striker of Dutch descent, scored the winning goal that day. He and Nakajima-Farran went to the same school in Japan.

The arrival of Nakajima-Farran means that Toronto FC continues its artistic bent. Former goalie Stefan Frei, now first-choice with the Seattle Sounders, relaxes by creating graffiti-type pen-tablet artworks.

---

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter