March 3, 2017 4:00 pm JST

At 50, Japan's oldest soccer pro continues to inspire

'King Kazu' Miura may have lost a step, but he can still mix it up with the best

YUKINORI TAKECHI, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- As he turned 50 last Sunday, Kazuyoshi Miura was on a soccer pitch as a starting member of the Yokohama club in an opening match of the Meiji Yasuda J2 League, taking on Matsumoto Yamaga.

Every time he plays, "King Kazu," or simply "Kazu," as fans affectionately call him, renews Japan's record as the oldest soccer player in an official game. Naturally, there was a party atmosphere at NHK Spring Mitsuzawa Football Stadium, Yokohama's home turf, with some 13,000 fans attending.

Kazu played as a forward along with 190cm-tall Laajab Abdurahim, better known as Ibba. Kazu managed to shoot just once and missed the goal. But it was enough for fans to erupt in thunderous applause when he left the pitch after 65 minutes, handing over to Tomohiro Tsuda.

Yokohama won the game 1-0, successfully defending its goal after midfielder Naoki Nomura scored 16 minutes into the game. The victory against Matsumoto Yamaga, the last season's third-ranker and a favorite to advance to the J1 League division, was a major confidence booster for Yokohama, and some of his deft moves reminded us that he was very much a part of what took the team to victory.

"King" for a reason

Of course, Kazu is no longer a young star player, deftly handling the ball like an artist. But he proved himself a functioning member of the team. When the opposing team got a corner kick, he expertly performed the clearing job by staying in the nearside. He was quick to go back to the Yokohama side when the team's midfielders and fullbacks went dangerously ahead, thinning the defense around their goal.

In today's soccer, every player on the pitch plays defense, including Kazu. But when I saw him clear a corner kick twice with a header, I thought, "Hey, don't let a 50-year-old guy do a hard job like that."

But he got the starting position because he is fully able to do a hard job like that. 

His teammates and younger players, as well as the fans, call Kazu "King" out of respect for his perseverance and impressive track record. But that gives him no advantage as a player. He is just one of many players fiercely vying for a position on the field.

People who climb to high positions often expect to be treated as special and shown deep respect, and may feel hurt or angry if they are not. But Kazu prefers to be treated as an equal with the rest of the team. 

Pursuing the best 

Realizing his body no longer responds like it once did can be devastating for an athlete, but Kazu takes it in stride. Though he is no longer the mean player he once was, he is not distracted by his declining physical ability. Instead, he constantly updates his playing and does what he needs to do to maintain peak condition.

Saburo Kawabuchi, the top adviser to the Japan Football Association, who attended Sunday's match, said he would never have imagined Kazu would still be playing in 2017, back when the two men were part of the driving force behind Japan's nascent professional soccer scene more than 20 years ago. At that time, Kazu was a football superstar, while Kawabuchi served as the first chairman of the Japan Professional Football League, known as J-League, when it was established in 1993.

"Four or five years ago, I told Kazu, 'Now that you've come this far, you've got to try to break Stanley Matthews' record,' but I said it as a joke," Kawabuchi said, referring to the legendary English dribbler, who received a knighthood.

"Before I came here today, I checked Matthews' record and he retired five days after his 50th birthday. Kazu turned 50 today, so the next time he plays, wherever it is, he will break Matthews' record. Then I think maybe Kazu should apply to Guinness World Records for recognition. I was also amazed by his luck to have a birthday on the day of the opening match of J2."

Elated fans

People become elated when they talk about Kazu and how he takes on the challenge of aging. And this feeling is contagious. I felt it from Tsuyoshi Kitazawa, who used to play with Kazu in Verdy Kawasaki, now Tokyo Verdy.

I asked Kitazawa, now the 48-year-old chairman of the Japan Inclusive Football Federation, a disability football organization, for his thoughts about the man who is two years older and still playing professionally.

"When Kazu-san was in his 40s, I was actually a bit worried about him, thinking, 'Doesn't he have any health issues?' But now that he's come this far, I can only feel excitement," Kitazawa said. "When I look at him now, I even think he might be changing people's perception about work and age."

The comment made me imagine Kazu still playing even after he starts receiving a pension. I said I would never again say "I'm old" as long as I'm still in my 50s.

Such is the impact Kazu can have on people. During the 65 minutes he was on the pitch, I, too, was caught up in the elation, as Kazu impressed us all with his fortitude and charisma.

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