How Is Kazuyoshi Miura, the World’s Oldest Footballer, Still Playing at 52?

Kazuyoshi Miura (Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)

The door to the gymnasium opened, and a man in his early 50s walked in.

He was dapperly dressed in a cream-coloured three-piece suit, pale pink shirt, burned orange tie and gleaming dark brogues. His black hair was styled in a rakish quiff, and his goatee was neatly trimmed. A red rose was pinned to his left lapel.

In the middle of the gym, a large white birthday cake, topped with fruit, sat on a table. Accompanied by a chorus of “Happy Birthday”, the man broke into an exaggerated strut, showily pumping his arms for effect, before elegantly twirling and stretching out his right hand in a theatrical flourish.

To a backdrop of applause and popping camera flashes, he bent forward and blew out the five candles on the cake before rising and bowing to his audience.

The man had turned 52 the day before, but the cake presentation had to be put back a day because he had been attending a tea party hosted by Japan’s imperial couple, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.

Such is the life of Kazuyoshi Miura: cultural icon, Japanese national treasure and, improbably, still a professional football player.

The presentation to Miura of a birthday cake by his club, Yokohama FC, has become an annual tradition. The suits change colour—cream for his 47th birthday, crimson for his 48th, pastel pink for his 50th—and the number on the cake keeps getting higher, but though his hair is now a little greyer and the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes a little deeper, King Kazu remains steadfast in his commitment to the only job he has ever known.

“My passion for soccer has not changed since I turned pro at the age of 18,” he told reporters who attended the ceremony at Yokohama’s training centre in late February. “I even feel like it is growing.”

Miura was born in February 1967, seven months after England won the 1966 FIFA World Cup. You can use just about any statistic you like to illustrate the extraordinary longevity of his career, and they are all staggering.

Having made his professional debut for Brazilian side Santos in 1986, he has both pre-dated and outlasted such modern greats as Ryan Giggs, Francesco Totti and Javier Zanetti. In terms of football contemporaries, his career is a bridge from Michel Platini, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Kenny Dalglish to Kylian Mbappe, Jadon Sancho and Vinicius Junior.

Miura is recognised by Guinness World Records as both the oldest player and the oldest goalscorer in professional football history, taking both records from the legendary Sir Stanley Matthews, who bowed out of the sport at 50.

When he was controversially omitted from Japan’s World Cup squad in 1998, at the age of 31, Miura was described in some reports as a “veteran.”

Twenty-one years later, he is still going.

After starting his career in Brazil, where he arrived at the age of just 15, Miura returned to his homeland in 1990 and became the first star of Japan’s professional era.

He excelled for Verdy Kawasaki in the J.League’s inaugural season in 1993 and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player and Asian Footballer of the Year. He became the first Japanese footballer to play in Italy when he spent a season on loan at Genoa in 1994-95 and also had a short stint at Dinamo Zagreb. He was capped 89 times by Japan, scoring 55 goals.

Aside from a brief loan spell at Sydney FC in 2005, he has been playing in Japan since 1999, successively turning out for Kyoto Purple Sanga, Vissel Kobe and, since 2005, Yokohama.

Despite already being 38 when he signed for Yokohama, he has gone on to make over 250 appearances for the second-tier club. His standing in Japanese football is without parallel.

“He’s football royalty here,” says Sean Carroll, a Tokyo-based football writer. “For Japanese football fans, he’s a god-like figure.”

Given Japan’s status as the country with both the highest life expectancy and the oldest population, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of its players play on into their late 30s.

Shunsuke Nakamura (40), Shinji Ono (39) and Yasuhito Endo (39) are all attached to J1 League clubs, while former Japan goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi was 43 when he finally hung up his gloves in December.

Even by Japanese standards, Miura is an outlier. But at the age of 52, is he still any good?

To say he is used sparingly would be something of an understatement. All nine of his league appearances in the 2018 campaign came from the bench—for a combined total of 59 minutes—and he has yet to feature in 2019. He has not scored a goal for two years, and when he does play, the years inevitably show.

“It’s not a low level of football in J2, but you can tell he’s off the pace,” says Carroll. “If he’s just playing simple passes and he’s not under too much pressure, you can see he’s still got it. But in terms of keeping up with the speed and the physicality of the game, he’s not where he really needs to be.”

Miura’s sometime strike partner Ibba Laajab, a former Norwegian futsal international, hinted at some of the difficulties inherent in playing alongside a living legend following a match against Machida Zelvia in 2017.

Complaining that he had felt “a little bit alone up there”, Laajab told The Japan Times: “He runs a lot and stuff, but he’s 50 years old and of course the age takes [its toll on] him a little bit.”

Yet a year earlier, Miura had demonstrated that his powers remained fully intact. With Yokohama trailing 2-0 at Cerezo Osaka in August 2016, he came off the bench with 21 minutes to play and promptly reduced the arrears, following his own cross from the left into the box, chesting down a headed clearance and expertly rattling a shot into the bottom-right corner. Yokohama ran out 3-2 winners.

“His goal in that match was really inspirational,” says Japanese football journalist Masayuki Tanabe. “Sometimes even just his presence can be inspirational for the whole team.”

As his powers continue to fade, it is increasingly off the pitch that Miura’s presence is felt. Not least in terms of his commercial importance to Yokohama FC, a phoenix club formed by supporters in protest at a 1999 merger between Yokohama Flugels and Yokohama Marinos (a move that spawned the modern J1 League club Yokohama F. Marinos).

“He obviously brings things to Yokohama money-wise, by putting bums on seats, and having him attached to the club works out very well commercially,” says Carroll. “The aura around him and the reputation that he’s got must also have an impact when it comes to attracting new players.”

Renowned almost as much for his natty dress sense as for his sporting endeavours, Miura is the face of several brands, advertising everything from coffee to male grooming salons.

He is seen as a kind of unofficial spokesman for Japanese football and is regularly solicited for his opinions on the game, be it FIFA’s plans to expand the World Cup or the general health of the national team.

Away from football, he is said to live a quiet life with his wife, Risako (a former actress), and their two children. He is famed for his commitment to his physical fitness and routinely travels to the Pacific island of Guam with a fitness coach in the close season to get himself into shape.

“He is still one of the Japanese players who trains the hardest,” says Tanabe. “His standard of training is incredibly high for his age. Even though his performances have been dropping, he tries his hardest to maintain his condition, and that’s seen as very respectable.”

At the end of every year, Japan’s football writers update the pieces that they have prepared for the momentous day when Miura finally announces his retirement. And every January, when he reveals that he intends to continue for another year, they quietly file them away again.

He is not expected to move into coaching when he does retire, with an ambassadorial role thought to be a more likely next step. For now, just as he has been for each of the past 34 years of his life, he remains a footballer.

“He has tons of money, tons of fame,” says Tanabe. “It might sound naive, but I think he simply loves football. Otherwise there’s no other reason to keep on playing.”

The night may be drawing in on Miura’s career, but he still has history in his grasp. The next time he takes to the field, he will make his own world record a little harder to beat. Should he score another goal, it will make headlines around the world. And come February 2020, it will surprise nobody if he dons yet another sharp suit, flashes yet another beaming smile for the cameras and blows out the candles on yet another birthday cake.

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