|BIG IN JAPAN
As 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 Ô97 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 Ô94, a place for Japan at
France Ô98 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.