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BIG IN JAPAN
Miura Kazuyoshi

Miura KazuyoshiAs Japan prepares to co-host the 2002 World Cup, soccer continues to ride a wave of popularity. Celebrity players like Nakata and Ramos enjoy at least as ardent a following as baseball stars Nobu or Ichiro. There is one name in soccer which is elevated above others, treated with a respect one associates with sumo stars: Miura Kazuyoshi - "King Kazu," the undisputed patriarch of J. League.

At a ripe 32, Kazu is undeniably cruising along the downslide of his playing career, as was cruelly hammered home at the World Cup in France last year. Included in the 25-man squad which flew to Switzerland for World Cup preparations in May, Kazu was surreptitiously dumped by coach Okada Takeshi before the team flew to France to compete, destroying Kazu' ambition to play in the world's ultimate soccer tournament.

Born in Shizuoka in 1967, Kazu quit school at fifteen and moved to Brazil. His first contract was with Santos FC and, ironically, he made his debut in Japan playing for a Brazilian team in the 1986 Kirin Cup. Kazu became well-loved among the hallowed stars of Brazilian soccer and proved he was able to compete with the big boys.

Returning to Japan to play for the Yomiuri Soccer Club in 1990, when soccer turned professional in 1993 Kazu was elected captain of the newly formed J. League, by which time he had been awarded almost every accolade available, including 1993 Asian Player of the Year. In 1994 he moved to Italy to play for Genoa, and became the first Asian to score a goal in the Serie A. Back in Japan in 1995, Kazu joined Verdy Kawasaki leading the team to victory in the 97 Emperor's Cup. In July 1996, he was the only Asian member of FIFA World All-Stars selected to play the Brazilian Olympic team.

In 1993, he married pop starlet Shitara Risako, but soccer is his true spouse, and scoring goals his true love. "I live for goals," he says, "The joy I feel when I score a goal is hard to beat. Every time I feel euphoria."

Having failed to get to the World Cup Finals in the US in 94, a place for Japan at France 98 became a national obsession. Kazu scored 14 goals in early qualifying rounds, but as the finals got closer, his flair evaded him. In October 1997, after Japan's 1-1 draw with the UAE, angry Japanese fans rioted against officials and the team, their anger partly directed at Kazu, whose goal-scoring magic had failed him in their time of need. Seven months later his inspiration was still absent and he returned to Japan, the press in hot pursuit, as his compatriots flew to France.

After the fiasco, Kazu made the surprising decision to move to FC Croatia. Although he delighted that it made him feel like he was fifteen again, his return to Japan after less than six months suggests that his Balkan adventure was not successful. Kazu realizes that life as a professional soccer player at the age of 32 will no longer be easy for him, and that he cannot keep moving for a full 90 minute game. Instead, he claims, his game has adjusted so that he can still play great soccer without having to keep moving.

When a deal with Hibernian in Scotland fell through, Kazu returned home to play for Kyoto Purple Sanga. His debut for that team on August 28 was treated as a hero's return by the capacity crowd. Despite the World Cup saga, soccer fans around the country refuse to dismiss the man responsible for making J. League what it is today.

Sam Johnson

BIG IN JAPAN:
299: Nakamura Kankuro
Arizona lover and Kabuki actor
298: Miura Yuichiro
The Man Who Skied Down Everest
297: Iron Chef
Gourmet cuisine battles
296: "Katte wa ikenai"
"Don't buy these products"
295: Oda Yuji
The dancing detective
294: Enoki Takaaki
An artist who acts
293: Glay
Japan's reigning pop princes
292: Akebono
Hawaiian Sumo wrestler
291: Issey Miyake
Fashion designer
290: Murakami Ryu
Radical writer
289: Oshima Nagisa
Movie director
288: Takakura Ken
Crime film actor
287: Miura Kazuyoshi
Soccer player
286: Suzuki Koji
Author of the horror, Ring
285: Tezuka Osamu
God of Comics
284: Yuming
Singer/songwriter
283: Anpanman
Bean-powered superhero
282: Yamaguchi Takashi
Immersed in traditional Japanese music
281: Nasubi
Comedian
280: Doi Takako
First female Speaker of the House
279: Nakamura Kichiemon
Retiring Kabuki actor
278: Oe Kenzaburo
Nobel prize winning author
277: Kimura Takuya
SMAP member
276: Utada Hikaru
Teenage pop phenomenon
275: Bando Tamasaburo
Kabuki female role impersonator
274: Otomo Katsuhiro
Akira creator
273: Dreams Come True
Premier recording artist
272: Dango San Kyodai
Surprise hit of 1999
271: Banana Yoshimoto
Author
270: Matsuzaka Daisuke
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269: Moritaka Chisato
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268: Mukai Chiaki
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267: Natto
Traditional Japanese health food
266: Hiroaki Kikuoka
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265: Chikamatsu Monzaemon
Japan's most revered dramatist
264: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Oscar-winning musician
263: Shigeo Nagashima
Japan's Mr Baseball
262: Ayako Totsuka
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261: Yatsuhashi Kengyo
Koto player
260: Chiyotaikai
Sumo wrestler
259: Pocky
Japanese snack food
258: Itsuki Hiroshi
Enka singer
257: Pocket Monsters
Conquering the world
256: Classified ads
New concept in Japan
255: Chara
Japanese pop star
254: Pink Lady
1970's singing duo
253: Takashi Sorimachi
Japanese heartthrob
252: Ennosuke Ichikawa
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251: Rie Miyazawa
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250: Shazna
Visual-kei band

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