When a 15-year-old Kazuyoshi Miura was asked by his teacher what he would do when he left school, his only reply was, “Brazil!” He had so much enthusiasm for his plan that no one was surprised to see him depart for South America. Such wild adventure was largely unheard of in Japan in 1982, but Miura was different. He had no intention of being restricted by what was then an isolationist and underdeveloped footballing nation.
A fiercely driven young striker, Miura was not a natural talent. Born in the city of Shizuoka, he worked on his game relentlessly, improving his technique to grab his chance when it finally arrived. Miura landed in Brazil with just $700, alone in a foreign land, and found a place at the junior academy of Sao Paulo club CA Juventus. But his idealistic, starry-eyed view of Brazil as the home of football was quickly dispelled. Sleeping in a flea-ridden dormitory and subjected to racist taunts, he quickly grew homesick.
Such was the difficulty of his start in Brazil that Miura considered returning home. But instead he moved to smaller club XV de Jau, where his performances briefly earned him a professional contract with Santos.
Another setback – he was released after only two games. Again, though, Miura did not give in. He joined a team of Japanese-Brazilian immigrants and eventually returned to XV de Jau where his situation improved. He headed the winning goal in a high-profile state championship clash against Corinthians, and the following morning woke up to headlines of ‘O Karate Kid do Futebol’.
Miura’s dogged determination had paid off. He went on to sign better contracts at Coritiba, Palmeiras and Santos, once more, and while playing for the former in 1988 was confronted by his idol, Zico. The Brazilian legend approached him at half-time, shook his hand and said: “You’ve made it.” Miura burst into tears at the realisation.
Three decades later, Miura is still playing back in his homeland. In March, the 50-year-old became the oldest player ever to feature in a professional match, and a week later he became the oldest goalscorer, surpassing the records previously set by Stanley Matthews. He has spent the last 12 years of his career with Yokohama FC, but – as one might expect of a career of such remarkable longevity – plenty has happened since his early escapades in Brazil.
When Miura returned to his homeland in 1990, he had benefited from experiencing a different culture in Brazil. The transformation about to take place in Japanese football would also serve him well.
“It’s no exaggeration to say he has transcended his status as a mere footballer,” says Sean Carroll, a football journalist working in Japan. “I guess you could say he is like the Japanese version of a Diego Maradona kind of figure, holding an almost mythical or god-like status.
“That’s in large part because of the way his career began, by heading to Brazil alone as a teenager and forging a career for himself in that way – in Japan putting in hours of hard work and overcoming adversity in order to improve are extremely highly regarded – before benefitting from the luck of being around at the launch of the J-League and so able to ride the crest of the wave.”
There was an air of exoticism, something uniquely individual about Miura, even from the start. His decision to take the risk of moving to Brazil was justified by its timing as much as anything else. Football in Japan was not truly popular until the late 1980s and the J-League was founded in 1993, by which time Miura was ideally placed to become the division’s first icon.
Unbeknown to Miura at the time, he had grown up in a footballing hotbed. In 1967, a local teacher had set up Japan’s first junior league in Shizuoka, which became home to increasing numbers of youth teams during Miura’s school years. By the time the J-League was founded, 15% of all professional players came from Shizuoka.
But not all were like Miura, who enjoyed the prime years of his career in the 1990s. Seven of them were spent at Tokyo Verdy, where he won four league titles and scored over 100 goals.
Before the anomaly of his endless playing career, the striker had already established himself as a national celebrity, affectionately labelled ‘King Kazu’. He was known for being a fashionista, arriving on one occasion at a strictly black tie awards ceremony wearing a cherry-red blazer. He celebrated each goal with his now famous ‘Kazu dance’. The anime film, ‘Kazu & Yasu Hero Tanjou’, told the story of Miura’s adolescence before he jetted off to Brazil.
He was a character, extravagant and energetic, with an infectious love of the game. Fans adored him for it, and for his impact in promoting Japanese football. Miura still attracts attention today – largely due to his record-breaking endurance – but in 1994 it was a move to Italy that made headlines about the revolution taking place in East Asia. Regardless of the success of Miura’s loan spell in Serie A with Genoa – he struggled to make a notable impact in what was then Europe’s most reputable league, scoring just a single goal – it was a hugely significant marketing manoeuvre.
But it was just another experience for Miura. He would later feature briefly for Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia and, amid his numerous adventures, star for the Japanese national team. By the time he brought his international career to an end in 2000, he had scored 55 goals in 89 appearances. It was the games he didn’t feature in for his country, however, that added to his legacy.
Having been prolific in Japan’s qualification for the 1998 World Cup, Miura was controversially left out of the squad that travelled to France by coach Takeshi Okada. “If anything that episode added to Kazu’s myth,” says Carroll. “It gave him a little bit of heartache in his back story. Publicly he insists it now doesn’t bother him to have missed out on the World Cup, but for someone whose whole life has been football, it’s clear the decision left a mark.”
While Miura may still regret missing the opportunity to play at a World Cup, it didn’t dent his enthusiasm for the game. Since 1998 he has featured for Kyoto Sanga, Vissel Kobe, Sydney FC on loan, and now continues to play for Yokohama in the J2 League almost 20 years later.
Despite his almost deity-like status, some have suggested that he may have gone on too long, that he is perhaps unwilling to let go and make way for the next generation. “From his point of view, he’s spent the best part of 40 years living for football, so if a team is willing to keep contracting him to play why quit?” says Carroll. “The problem is that the football world here allows it to continue, and what he really should be doing is playing at a much lower level. But in Japan nobody would dare suggest that about Kazu, and he and he alone will be the one to decide when he hangs up his boots.
“In a sense that’s holding back Yokohama FC as he’s taking up a place in the squad, often on the bench, and occasionally on the pitch when he is not capable of making any meaningful contribution. However, in terms of getting the club attention he serves as a vital marketing tool, and with Japanese fans generally far less cynical than those elsewhere in the world his presence still puts bums on seats and brings a hell of a lot of revenue into the club from sponsors.”
Miura is still an infectiously idiosyncratic footballer. At 50, he remains in excellent shape, as fit as some teammates 30 years his junior. He trains rigorously in Hawaii every pre-season – Yokohama have followed him there on more than one occasion – and employs a personal trainer to ensure he doesn’t slack off in middle age.
“He can still run,” Miura’s Yokohama teammate Jong-a-Pin told the Japan Times in April. “Sometimes we do dashes and physical training, and he can still keep up with everyone. He never skips training. He’s there one hour before with his personal trainer doing core exercises and stuff. I’m coming in with my sandwich and he’s already been busy for 30 minutes.
“I wonder how long he can keep this up, because this guy is motivated. I’ve never seen anything like it. I have some passion for the game but this guy, it’s insane. I heard he lives separately from his family because sometimes he needs to focus. They live in the same street but sometimes he needs to focus on the game, so he takes a space so he can do that. Can you imagine that?”
Few question his integrity. “He’s down-to-earth and not pretentious at all,” says Alan Gibson, the editor of JSoccer Magazine who knows Miura personally. “We first met at Tokyo Dome in 1993 when Aston Villa played Tokyo Verdy in a friendly. He was happy to have a picture and a chat. He’s one of the most recognisable and well-loved faces in Japan.”
There is no suggestion of an imminent retirement, either.
“I know that I’m not young anymore and I am finding the game a lot tougher physically, but I still get a lot of pleasure when my team wins or I play well,” said Miura. “As long as I’m enjoying my football, I’ll keep going.”
That was back in 2005, and 12 years later Japan’s most indefatigable icon is still going. Who knows how long one of football’s most romantic careers will last.