It has become an annual tradition. Every January, Japanese living legend Kazuyoshi Miura signs a new one-year contract to extend his career as the world’s oldest professional footballer.
2021 has been no exception and ‘King Kazu’ penned a fresh deal with Yokohama FC, the club he joined in 2005. Miura was in his late thirties then, a time when most players are either already retired or winding down their career. But he has gone on for another 16 years and counting.
Miura became the oldest ever player to appear in a professional game in March 2017, when he played for Yokohama against V-Varen Nagasaki a week after his 50th birthday. That broke a record previously held by English legend Stanley Matthews set over half a century earlier in 1965.
Miura, who turns 54 in February 2021, has been extending his own record ever since.
Naturally, he is also the oldest goalscorer in the history of professional football. He broke that record, another previously held by Matthews, the same month as becoming the oldest player. The strike against Thespakusatsu Gunma still remains his last.
At 53, even Miura is no longer a regular for Yokohama, who returned to the J1 League in 2020 after 12 consecutive seasons in the Japanese second tier. He typically plays a handful of games per year, although he still appeared as many as 20 league games as recently as the 2016 campaign.
Miura is widely known internationally these days primarily for his age. But as already alluded to, he is a genuine all-time legend of Japanese football and his peak came in the mid-1990s.
Back then, Miura was already Japan’s greatest ever player. Even with more modern competition from the likes of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Shunsuke Nakamura, Shinji Okazaki, Yasuhito Endo and others, he is still right up there in the debate.
Miura was at the very forefront of the modern development of Japanese football, with the country now a staple of the World Cup, its players consistently among the best in Asia and present at clubs throughout Europe, and its domestic league one of the preeminent competitions outside Europe.
The J-League didn’t actually exist when Miura was starting out and the highest level of club football in Japan was still contested by amateur players. Determined to make it pro, he gambled on his ability and moved to Brazil in 1982 at the age of just 15.
After four years at a team called Juventus in Sao Paulo, Miura earned a professional contract at city heavyweights Santos, the club that developed Pele and would later produce Neymar. He remained in Brazil until 1990, playing for several more clubs – including Palmeiras and a second spell at Santos.
Upon his return to Japan, Miura was a national superstar when he joined Tokyo club Yomiuri SC. They won the final two championships of Japan’s amateur era, before renaming as Verdy Kawasaki for the 1992 launch of the J-League and winning the first two of the professional era.
Zico and Gary Lineker were international superstars playing in Japan at that time, but Miura outshone everyone in the 1993 season and was named the inaugural J-League Player of the Year. To highlight the early impact of overseas players, it was 1998 before the next Japanese winner.
Around the same time as winning four back-to-back league titles spread, Miura also won three consecutive league cups with Yomiuri/Verdy Kawaski, while Japan’s primary domestic cup, the Emperor’s Cup was added to the collection in 1996.
Miura was even poached for a loan spell in Serie A with Genoa in 1994/95, but all in all had scored 100 league goals in fewer than 200 league appearances by the time he left Verdy in 1998.
Another spell in Europe was short-lived, this time with Croatia Zagreb (now Dinamo Zagreb), before becoming a sole shining light for struggling Kyoto Purple Sanga in 1999 and later moving at 34 to Vissel Kobe – famous these days for high profile foreigners like Andres Iniesta.
At international level, Miura was a trailblazer for an emerging Japan. When he made his debut in 1990 on his return from Brazil, Japan had never qualified for the World Cup and had only recently made it to their first ever AFC Asian Cup, a competition they have since come to dominate.
After exiting the 1988 Asian Cup at the group stage without a win, Miura was part of the Japan squad that won in 1992 and was named ‘Most Valuable Player’ at the tournament.
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He went on to score 13 times in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup to lead the AFC section, with Japan falling agonisingly short behind Saudi Arabia and South Korea in the final round. Miura was again on fire in the 1998 qualifying programme. This time he got 14 goals and Japan reached the finals in France, benefitting from an expanded tournament doubling Asia’s places.
But one of the great footballing travesties of the 1990s saw Miura, Japan’s best player and talisman, omitted from the final squad. An article from April 1998, just two months before the tournament, that is still available on FIFA’s official website even profiled Japan’s star man in the build-up. To say his snub was unexpected would be an understatement.
Miura had even scored a hat-trick for Japan in an unofficial friendly against a Swiss club side the day before the final squad was announced by coach Takeshi Okada. It was a controversial decision in Japan, but Okada, who was put in charge at the very end of qualifying, claimed he could not find a suitable role for the national treasure in the team, or even from the bench.
Miura didn’t play for Japan at all in 1999 and only five more times in 2000 before his international career came to an end aged 33. He finished with 55 goals in 89 appearances and remains Japan’s second leading scorer of all-time to this day. At the time of the 2002 World Cup on home soil, he was playing in the J1-League and perhaps still could have contributed at 35.
His club career has obviously long continued into his forties and fifties, but ‘King Kazu’ is far more than an old gimmick. He’s a living legend who helped make Japanese football what it is today.