1967.

A year when Otis Redding died in a plane crash. A year when John McCain was shot down in Vietnam & taken prisoner. A year when The Beatles released possibly the most influential album of all time, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. A year in which Scottish football fans claimed the unofficial title of world champions after a 3-2 win against then World Cup holders England.

It was also the year Kazuyoshi Miura was born.

And, as you might well have heard about, Miura scored a goal against Thespa Kusatsu Gunma last weekend (the winning goal, no less) to cement his place, if indeed it needed any cementing, in footballing folklore. But how, and why, is Miura still playing at a high professional level, and what does it say about the state of Yokohama FC and the J.League in general?

Taken purely on face value, Miura’s goal against Gunma was a classic poachers finish; lying in wait – “the right place at the right time” in football parlance – in order to finish fairly easily after the goalkeeper parried the ball out to him. After that came the bit almost everyone was waiting for: the Kazu Dance.

Of course, this got huge coverage in Japan and a decent bit of exposure in the foreign media – from The Guardian & Daily Telegraph in England (where the focus was on him topping Sir Stanley Matthews’ oldest goalscorer record) to SI & ESPN in America and even to countries like Norway. And why wouldn’t it? It isn’t so uncommon for players to play late into their thirties, sometimes early forties. But fifties? Most people, despite the advances in sports science, nutritional intelligence etc, thought that era had passed. Miura looks after himself, there is no doubt about that. Every winter, he takes himself, some players, and a team of trainers & masseurs to Guam for some warm weather winter training, and it is this training that forms the bedrock of his fitness heading into the season. He understandably doesn’t last full games, this season he has started all three of Yokohama FC’s games, but has been subbed off in the 65th, 54th & 58th minute respectively.

 

Why do Yokohama FC need him?

On the face of it, he is primarily there as squad depth, a club ambassador and is instantly recognizable to any Japanese person, not only football supporters. “The Media” loves him, having grown up with him and his flashy clothes, cars & hairstyles; his stellar spell at Verdy Kawasaki; his trauma at missing out on the 1998 world cup; his short spell in Serie A with Genoa, all the way through to his 12 years in Yokohama.

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Miura in his Verdy Kawasaki days (photo: Verdy Kawasaki)

The Japanese public have a certain affection for the players which blazed a trail in the professional era. You just need to witness the adulation given to veteran stars such as Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi for SC Sagamihara (42 this year), Shunsuke Nakamura for Jubilo Iwata (39 this year), Shinji Ono for Consadole Sapporo (38 this year), Gon Nakayama for Azul Claro Numazu (49 this year). All of these players still put bums on seats for their respective clubs, and even have the potential to bump up attendances for opposing sides when they visit their stadia. These names are still revered amongst the football public, and those players simply don’t want to retire and go away. They feel they can still contribute to their respective sides, even now (and it is hard to disagree to that to a certain extent – Shunsuke Nakamura scored a trademark free-kick for Jubilo Iwata last weekend, Kazu obviously scored for YFC, 38 year old (next month) Mitsuo Ogasawara is still a fixture in Champion Kashima Antlers’ midfield).

38 year old Shunsuke Nakamura scores a free-kick for Jubilo Iwata last week.

Many people can, and do, look at the fact that Kazu starting at age 50 is a indictment on Yokohama FC’s youth system / ability to replace their star forward. That is a fair assessment, especially given the fact that one of Kazu’s strike partners is Tetsuya ‘Jumbo’ Okubo – himself a sprightly 37 years old. It reminds me of a game I watch last season in which Yokohama FC were a goal down with ten minutes to go and they brought both Kazu & Okubo on, a strike force with a combined age of 85, to change the pace of the game (I chuckled a little bit, but Kazu nearly scored – heading over from 12 yards out). But having said that, there is no-one – at least no-one I can think of off the top of my head – that has blasted out of the YFC academy/youth sides and has screamed “play me”. YFC have to make a choice each year (or at least they hold a stake in the decision – how much power Kazu & his sponsors hold is an interesting question) about the pros & cons of keeping Kazu & playing him vs ushering him out and going with youth/freshness in the forward line. It (probably/almost certainly) isn’t a purely footballing decision, but it is one that Yokohama FC make each year for the good of their club.

 

How does he play now?

These days, as previously mentioned, he’s on “snap count” – meaning he will only play to a certain point in the game. In fact, his last full game for Yokohama was more than five years ago (in the league, that is), but when he does start for the side, he starts up top. I find it increasingly hard these days to pigeonhole teams’ tactics in an era where positional fluidity (buzzword klaxon!) is so key, but in general Yokohama played, and have played, a 4-4-2 system, and that means that Kazu usually has a partner to help with his running. In the last year it has been the highly impressive Norwegian forward Ibba, and in the recent past it has been Jumbo Okubo or Masaru Kuortsu.

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Kazuyoshi Miura (left) & Tetsuya Okubo celebrate a goal for Yokohama FC (photo: soccerdigest)

It is said that players drop deeper as they grow older, but in actual fact Miura has moved ever so slightly forward in his old age, after starting life out as a hybrid winger/forward, he now plays exclusively up top. He’ll run & chase as much as legs allow him to, but he isn’t kind of forward who will do the in-vogue ‘gegenpress’ system that requires so much pressing high up the field. What he can do however, is he can use his experience and know-how to find soft spots in defence and travel into them in order to draw opposition defenders with him, thus freeing up space elsewhere, a tactic that has helped winger Naoki Nomura come to prominence in Yokohama’s system.

In order for that to work though, defenders need to respect Miura’s pure footballing abilities, something that they are apparently willing to do. It is at this point that we should make the point that defences in J2 aren’t the most sturdy, and so that has to be put into the equation. Teams later this season might think the best thing to do is ignore Miura when he is on the pitch, but that is a difficult thing to do – mentally players get quite nervous when they see someone floating around unmarked and it causes a quiet sense of panic on the pitch.

What is the future for Miura?

The pithy response to this question would be “a bus pass and a walking stick”, but in an interview after his 50th birthday, Kazu said, in typically flowery prose: “I’m not a new car, but vintage cars can still race if they are looked after properly.” To keep that analogy going, they do require more care, and when parts break they become incredibly difficult to replace. But there’s a large amount of the Japanese word “natsukashii” involved. ‘Natsukashii’ roughly translates as “fondness for times past” and when Japanese supporters see Kazu, and see the Kazu dance it reminds them of a time when Japan was booming, and its first professional stars were leading a football revolution and bringing Japan into the footballing 21st century.

“If my body allows me, I’d like to play until I’m 60” he said after the opening game of Yokohama FC’s season, a 1-0 win over Matsumoto Yamaga. Dressed in a pastel pink suit, with a huge flower protruding from his top pocket, it would easy to dismiss his words as just that – words. But every year in Japan, we – the footballing public – seem to have the same conversation. And every year he goes to a warm place to train in pre-season, and every year he comes back for more. There are lots of things you can doubt about the situation or context behind Kazuyoshi Miura playing professional football in his fifties, but what you can’t doubt is the man himself and his desire to play.

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Happy 50th birthday! (photo: Kyodo)

Long live the King!

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