Tokyo (AFP) – Japan’s Peter Pan striker Kazuyoshi Miura is preparing to play another season despite turning 54 this week, but he is far from his country’s only footballing golden oldie.
Miura, better known as King Kazu, will be looking to extend his record as the oldest J-League first-division starter when his club Yokohama FC kick off their season on Saturday.
But he won’t be the only veteran rolling back the years, with nine players over the age of 40 currently lining up for teams across the league’s three divisions.
“I think Japanese culture might have something to do with it,” 40-year-old Keiji Tamada, a striker with second-division V-Varen Nagasaki, told AFP.
“Of course the aim is to play in matches, but I think a lot of players stay with their teams because they feel they can make a contribution beyond that,” by passing down knowledge and experience, he said.
Miura, who is preparing to begin his 36th career season, became the oldest player in the world to score in a professional match in 2017, when he found the net aged 50 years and 14 days.
He extended his own J-League record as the oldest starter in September last year, one of four league appearances he made for Yokohama last season.
“I was feeling the joy of playing football at a time when the world was facing a tough situation because of the new coronavirus,” he said after renewing his contract last month.
“Personally it was not a satisfactory season, but my ambition and enthusiasm for football are increasing.”
But Miura, who began his professional career in 1986, is not the only veteran raging against the dying light in the J-League.
Former Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura is still going strong at 42, while ex-Japan internationals Junichi Inamoto, Yasuhito Endo and Teruyoshi Ito — now 46 — are all playing into their fifth decades.
Miura’s 53-year-old former Japan strike partner Masashi Nakayama was registered as a player with third-division Azul Claro Numazu until last month, although his most recent J-League appearance came as a 45-year-old in 2012.
– ‘A true pro’ –
Midfielder Shinji Ono, now 41 and preparing for his 24th professional season, says the older generation “spur each other on”.
“Sometimes we meet up and have a chat,” Ono, who made 14 appearances in the second division last season before moving to top-flight Consadole Sapporo, told AFP.
“But we never talk about when we’re going to retire, because you can feel that everyone is enjoying playing football.”
Footballers playing on into their 40s is relatively rare in Europe, with Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and Montpellier defender Hilton — both 43 — two of the few still active.
Dutch defender Calvin Jong-a-Pin, a teammate of Miura’s at Yokohama, believes the less physically bruising nature of the J-League “definitely helps” players continue for longer.
But he can’t find fault with the seemingly evergreen Miura’s fitness.
“He’s highly motivated and just a true professional,” said Jong-a-Pin, a relative spring chicken at 34.
“In training, we have hard sessions where we have to run, and he’s running at the front. He’s the first guy doing all the laps, and everyone is behind him.”
Jong-a-Pin says Miura has a personal trainer “who follows him everywhere,” and even has his own driver “so he doesn’t lose energy driving from his home to the clubhouse.”
Ono, who has played in the Netherlands, Germany and Australia, says he also takes special care of his body, and is feeling “in really good shape” heading into the new season.
“I don’t think about retiring — I don’t think about the future,” he said.
“If no club wants me, I won’t have a team to play for, and I’ll have no choice but to quit. That day will come at some point, but until then, I’ll enjoy playing football.”
As for Miura, Jong-a-Pin believes it will take an act of God to make him hang up his boots.
“He told me he would die on the field,” Jong-a-Pin said. “I believe him. Somebody has to make him stop, because he will not stop.”