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This is the eighth in a series on influential figures in the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates in April. In Heisei, Japan was roiled by economic excess and stagnation, as well as a struggle for political and social reform. This series explores those who left their imprint along the way.
It could be said that no team sport in Japan has outpaced soccer’s growth through the Heisei Era, and 52-year-old Kazuyoshi Miura is the only player who can claim to have been a part of that growth throughout.
Japanese soccer’s history began in 1873 during the Meiji Era. The national high school tournament began in 1917, while the Emperor’s Cup, Japan’s equivalent of England’s FA Cup, was first held in 1921.
But soccer never received anything close to top billing in the land of baseball and sumo. Clubs representing companies played to sparse crowds on poorly maintained fields, and it was not until 1977 when Yasuhito Okudera became Japan’s first professional football player by joining Germany’s Koln.
Five years later, a 15-year-old Miura dropped out of Shizuoka Gakuen High School, flew to Brazil, and joined the youth academy of Sao Paulo’s CA Juventus.
Arriving without any Portuguese language skills, Miura struggled to adjust to daily life in Brazil at a time when “Japanese” was a synonym for “bad at soccer.” In practice, teammates wouldn’t pass to him. In the academy dormitory, other players stole from him. But Miura persevered, joining a futsal team to improve his technical ability and never voicing his complaints.
“He was always cheerful and paid close care to his hair and fashion,” Kimura Mitsuko, who moved to Brazil in 1960 and opened a famous barbershop in Sao Paulo six years later, said in a 2011 interview for Football Summit. “I heard from others that he was struggling. But he never complained. He wouldn’t give in.”
After signing his first professional contract with Santos on Feb. 24, 1986 — two days before his 19th birthday — Miura steadily matured and rose through the ranks of Brazilian soccer, spending time at Palmeiras, Matsubara, CBR, XV de Jau and Cortiba before returning to Santos in 1990. He became a local legend and would eventually earn permanent residency in Brazil.
The next phase of Miura’s career would take him back to Japan, where soccer officials were at last working toward establishing a professional league capable of pushing the country to its long-desired World Cup debut.
“He came back from Brazil with a reputation. It took a while for the Japanese press to accept that he was as good as he was,” said veteran Japanese soccer writer Michael Plastow.
“He’d done it the wrong way — leaving school at 15, going off on his own, hadn’t gone through the system. He was a flashy player on the pitch, he had these great individual ball skills. He did his ‘Kazu Dance’ when he scored, and a lot of people felt that he wasn’t the ‘standard’ straightforward and team-oriented striker like Kazushi Kimura,” Plastow said. “Kazu was very individual.”
Miura joined Yomiuri SC, which became Verdy Kawasaki when the J. League was unveiled in 1992. With an assembled team of superstars, Verdy set the nascent league ablaze, winning the competition’s first two championships in 1993 and 1994.
“For a period, he was by far the best player in Japan, through about 1995,” noted Plastow. “He had the dribbling, the shot, once he teamed up at Verdy with Tsuyoshi Kitazawa he had a foil. And Rui Ramos, of course. Between them, they turned football into an entertainment.”
The J. League could not hope for a better representation of what it hoped to accomplish than Miura, with his pop-star persona, flashy suits and sculpted physique, the last of which was the subject of a 1995 nude photo book by American fashion photographer Herb Ritts.
“When you went to a game and heard the chanting, the decibels were huge but the pitch … there were so many girls cheering, and Kazu was a very big factor in that,” Plastow recalled.
“The J. League was about taking the sport out of the straitjacket of company sports and nobody could have represented that new free, modern spirit more than Kazu.”
While Miura will always be remembered for his contributions to the J. League’s early days, he will also be remembered for what he couldn’t accomplish — a World Cup appearance.
Miura was present for the disastrous “Agony of Doha” in 1993, when Japan narrowly missed out on qualifying for the U.S.-hosted 1994 edition, as well as for the 1997 “Delight of Johor Bahru,” when the Samurai Blue defeated Iran on a golden goal to qualify for France 1998.
But by 1997, “King Kazu” was struggling to score goals as injuries took their toll. He, along with Verdy teammate Kitazawa and Shimizu S-Pulse defender Daisuke Ichikawa, was cut from head coach Takeshi Okada’s expanded squad as the team prepared for the tournament in Nyon, Switzerland.
“I didn’t see a place for (Miura) in the squad,” Okada told his former assistant Takeshi Ono in a recent interview. “You’d think that you could find a way to get him onto the pitch, but I was 41 years old at the time and didn’t have any experience, so I couldn’t think of that option.”
Miura famously returned from Europe with a freshly bleached head of hair, having spent a day clearing his head with Kitazawa in a $1,500-a-night Milan suite. Although he would return briefly to the national team under Philippe Troussier in 2000, the omission from France marked the end of his role as superstar and the start of his role as elder statesman.
After hopping between a few clubs following the 1998 season, including stints in Croatia and Australia as well as at Japan’s Kyoto Sanga and Vissel Kobe, Miura has settled at Yokohama FC, becoming a popular fixture in the J. League’s second division even as his appearances have steadily declined.
Besides finally getting his chance to represent Japan at a World Cup by participating in the 2012 Futsal World Cup in Thailand, Miura is known more for his frequent commercial appearances and regular boasts to the media that he’s ready and willing to step up for the Samurai Blue.
Outside of Japan, Miura’s longevity draws regular praise, with each appearance garnering mention in European press and each goal broadcast globally. The New York Times profiled him last fall, and the BBC dutifully reports on every contract renewal.
A fanatical fitness and nutrition regimen has not prevented injuries, but even Miura himself is sometimes amazed with his current standing.
“When I was in my 20s, I never would have thought I would still be playing when I was 50,” Miura told The Japan Times’ Andrew McKirdy in 2017. “I wouldn’t even have thought I would be still playing in my 40s. It would have been inconceivable.
“I’m still able to play simply because I like soccer,” he added. “I’ve also been very lucky with injuries. I’ve never had an operation.”
His decision to continue his career into his 50s draws admiration from many, but ridicule from others who are not as enamored with Miura’s outsized marketing role compared to his minimal contribution on the pitch.
King Kazu has heard it all before — including questions comparing him to “a panda at a zoo,” simply there to bring out the crowds.
“That’s been said and written of me in the J2 and at Yokohama FC, hasn’t it?” Miura told Aera Style Magazine in 2016. “But people won’t come if you’re not a panda. I’m proud to play that role. It’s okay if I’m just a panda to draw crowds. Fans won’t come for a regular bear, they’re coming for a panda. A regular bear can’t become a panda.”
If Miura is a panda, he has inspired a generation of players to become more than the average bear.
“Kazuyoshi Miura showed me how amazing a soccer player can be and gave me something to dream about,” Urawa Reds defender Tomoaki Makino, who is known for his own flamboyant personality, said at February’s J. League kickoff event. “When I saw him I wanted to play on a J. League pitch.
“He delighted even nonsoccer fans not only with his goals, but with his performances,” Makino said. “He inspired me to become the player I am today.”
By Staff Writer, The Japan Times