‘King Kazu’ at 50 is world’s oldest football professional

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Suresh Nair

AGE is just a mere number for former Japan icon striker Kazuyoshi Miura, who turns 51 this month, and continues to tie his boots as the oldest player in the J-League.

Admiringly nicknamed “King Kazu” for his spirited grit and style, he will kick off his 33rd career season this year after a stunning 2017 in which he surpassed the previous professional longevity record set by England legend Sir Stanley Matthews.

Miura also became the oldest player to score a competitive goal in a professional match last year, another record held previously by Matthews.

He believes in taking every year, step by step, and had his contract extended for one more season with his hometown football club Yokohama.

“I will always play my heart out and hope to continue to grow [as a player],” Miura told Kyodo news agency. The J-League legend wants to retire in nine years’ time, when he turns 60.

His footballing tale from teen days may well be one from famous football comic books like ‘Roy of the Rovers’. Sometimes unbelievable.

CHILDHOOD DREAM

He kicked off his lengthy career at the age of 15, when he travelled to Brazil to become a professional footballer there in 1982. He left the Shizuoka Gakuen School after less than a year, to realise his childhood dream of being a professional footballer.

He signed with Clube Atlético Juventus, a youth club in São Paulo, and in 1986 – a year when Lionel Ritchie was No 1 in the charts and Gary Lineker picked up the Golden Boot – he signed his first professional contract with Santos. He played for several other Brazilian clubs including Palmeiras and Coritiba until his return to Japan in 1990.

Three years later, he was named ‘Most Valuable Player’ in the J-League’s inaugural season, pipping the likes of Lineker – then of Grampus Eight – and Brazilian playmaker Zico to the accolade.

The peak of his career coincided with the launch of the J.-League in 1993. He was arguably Japan’s first globally famous superstar in football.

No sign of stopping, Miura has served Japanese second-tier club Yokohama FC since 2005 and became the oldest player to appear in a professional match at the age of 50 years and seven days last March, catching global media attention by surpassing Stanley Matthews’ longevity record.

He played in 12 league games last year and scored one goal, breaking his own record as the J-League’s oldest scorer.

32 YEARS PRO FOOTBALL

In 32 years of professional football, he has represented 14 clubs in five countries – including short spells at Genoa in Italy and Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia. MVP Tyrone Mings reveals shocking extent of racist abuse in football ‘King Kazu’, as he is affectionately known, earned 89 caps for Japan – scoring 55 goals along the way – and was the first player from his country to be named Asian Player of the Year.

Another major milestone was being the first Japanese footballer to play in Italy, joining Genoa in the 1994–95 Serie A season. In his Italian stint, he played 21 times and scored just one goal, during the Genoa derby against Sampdoria. He returned to Verdy Kawasaki for the 1995 season and played with them until the end of the 1998 season.

He never feared overseas challenges and he made another attempt at playing in Europe with Dinamo Zagreb in 1999. He returned to Japan, however, following a brief trial with England’s AFC Bournemouth, in the same year, and played with Kyoto Purple Sanga and Vissel Kobe, before eventually signing for Yokohama in 2005.

He played with Sydney FC of the A-League on a two-month loan in late 2005, appearing in league matches and the 2005 FIFA World Club Championship held in Japan. He scored two goals in his second A-League match, a 3–2 defeat at league leaders Adelaide United.

CROWD FAVOURITE

Miura was a rousing crowd favourite, too, famous for his trademark “Kazu Feint” and his famous “Kazu dance” when he scores great goals or produces great plays.

He will always be remembered for blazing the trail for Japanese players in Europe.

March 5 2017 is a special day etched in Miura’s mind as he became the oldest ever player to feature in a professional match when he started in Yokohama’s 1–1 draw against V-Varen Nagasaki. With 50 years and seven days, he surpassed the previous record held by Matthews from 1965 by two days.

Seven days later, he broke Matthews’ record for oldest goalscorer in professional football when he struck the only goal of a 1–0 win over Thespakusatsu Gunma.

On signing his new one-year extension, Miura said: “I hope to keep fighting with all my might together with people involved with the club, my team-mates and supporters who have always given me support.”

He made his Japan debut in 1990 and helped lead his nation to its first ever World Cup appearance in 1998 by netting 14 goals in qualifying-round matches. However, he was controversially left out of the final squad for France and retired from international football two years later, having scored 55 goals in 89 appearances – finishing with the second-most career goals in Japanese national team history!

Oh yes, another track record: Miura’s 139 goals place him sixth in the all-time list of top scorers in J-League’s top division.

And last year, he became the oldest player to feature in a professional match when he started in Yokohama’s 1-1 draw against V-Varen Nagasaki. He has since made 200 appearances for the club.

NO MANAGER ROLE

He laughs when asked if his younger self could have imagined his current situation. “I would never have imagined it,” he says. “When I was in my 20s, I never would have thought I would still be playing when I was 50. I wouldn’t even have thought I would be still playing in my 40s. It would have been inconceivable.

“I’m still able to play simply because I like football. I’ve also been very lucky with injuries. I’ve never had an operation.”

His hair may have faded to gray, as he crosses the half-century mark but his desire for the game burns as bright as ever.

Strangely, managerial thoughts never crossed his mind. He says: “My next goal is to play in the next game, that’s all. I have no plans to become a manager. I don’t have any plans at all.”

Never ever write off “King Kazu” who, as a parting shot, reminds that, barring any serious injury or match-fitness, he wants to play on until he’s 60.

Tongue-in-cheek, he even jokes that the day he stops will be “the day I die.”

 

  • Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has interviewed ‘King Kazu’, easily the biggest icon in Japanese football history, in the 1990s.