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Japan’s ‘King Kazu’ turns 50 with J-League start

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Former Japan striker Kazuyoshi Miura celebrates his 50th birthday with fans on February 26, 2017 © AFP / TORU YAMANAKA

YOKOHAMA, Japan, Feb 26Twinkle-toed former Japan striker Kazuyoshi Miura celebrated his 50th birthday by starting a J-League game for Yokohama FC on Sunday, marking yet another landmark in a storied career.

Miura, the oldest Japanese to play professional football, lasted 65 minutes in a 1-0 home win over second division rivals Matsumoto Yamaga as he became the first quinquagenarian to grace the J-League.

Now the golden oldie, dubbed “King Kazu” by Japanese media and fans, wants to play until he’s 60.

Kazuyoshi Miura, 50, played the opening match of 2017 season for Yokohama FC, on February 26, 2017 © AFP / TORU YAMANAKA

“I want to thank the fans, players and staff for giving me this victory as a birthday present,” said Miura after being serenaded by fans and presented with a cake and a bouquet.

“To be able to play for so many years I’ve been blessed with a lot of support,” added the former Dinamo Zagreb forward, who last month signed a new one-year deal with Yokohama to take his career into a 32nd season, stretching his own record.

“I really want to thank my team mates for their help. I’ll do my best to play on until I’m 60!”

Though the pin-up looks have been replaced by a few tell-tale wrinkles and greying hair, Miura still enjoys celebrity status in Japan.

Miura, who last year also broke his own mark as the J-League’s oldest goalscorer at 49, received a rousing ovation from a sellout crowd of 13,000 when he was withdrawn after an industrious spell in Yokohama’s season-opener.

He made 20 league appearances last season, scoring twice, but he betrayed signs of rust Sunday when he mis-kicked with his only real sight of goal.

– In the pink –

“I was just trying to focus on my game,” said Miura after slipping into a dapper pink suit and high-fiving fans on a lap of honour joined by match-winner Naoki Nomura, half his age at 25.

Fans cheer Kazuyoshi Miura, playing for Yokohama FC on February 26, 2017, marking his 50th birthday © AFP / TORU YAMANAKA

“It gave me a lot of motivation to be able to play in such a great atmosphere,” he added. “There will be a lof of tough games ahead as the team fights for promotion so I want to give everything I can to help.”

Miura’s lengthy career began with a move to Brazil at age 15 before making his name in the early 1990s as Asia’s best-known footballer, helping to build Japan’s football culture after the professional J-League was launched in 1993.

He blazed a trail for Japanese players when he joined Italy’s Genoa in 1994, although a broken nose on his debut took some of the gloss off his trumpeted arrival.

Miura scored 55 goals in 89 games for Japan but when he was axed from the Blue Samurai squad by then-coach Takeshi Okada before the country’s first World Cup appearance in 1998, it triggered a national debate.

Unperturbed, Miura defiantly offered his services for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa — with no apparent hint of irony — at the ripe old age of 43.

Okada, in his second spell as coach, politely declined.

Miura finally got his dream to play for Japan in a World Cup at 45 — albeit in the futsal version in Thailand.

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