Kazuyoshi Miura: The story of Japanese football’s first Serie A player

​Hidetoshi Nakata begat Hiroshi Nanami; and Hiroshi Nanami begat Atsushi Yanagisawa; and Atsushi Yanagisawa begat Shunsuke Nakamura; and Shunsuke Nakamura begat Takayuki Morimoto; and Takayuki Morimoto begat Yuto Nagatomo; and Yuto Nagatomo finally begat Keisuke Honda.

The dynasty of Japanese players in Serie A started quite recently, and is studded with flashes in the pan. We go from ‘the Asian Ronaldo’ (Morimoto, whose shaved head resembled that of O Fenômeno) to the man then Venezia chairman Maurizio Zamparini described as ‘the strongest Japanese player of all times’ (Nanami). These two betrayed expectations, but some of their compatriots left a good memory in Italy. Nakata, for example, was instrumental in Roma’s 2001 Scudetto, and Nakamura’s legendary free-kicks are still remembered by every Reggina supporter.

But the forefather of Japanese players in Serie A is Kazuyoshi Miura, class of ’67, from the Japanese prefecture of Shizuoka. A footballing pioneer, Miura was also an interesting character, despite his disastrous spell at Genoa in 1994-95 season.

When bought by the Rossoblu, Miura was at the top of his career. He had been awarded Asian Player of the Year in 1993, almost earned qualification to the 1994 World Cup scoring plenty of goals with the national team, and was hailed as a hero in Japan. The contract he had with Tokyo Verdy was a nine-digit one, but he didn’t think twice when given the chance to play in Serie A.

Miura’s purchase was part of a bigger commercial strategy. He was on free loan, and his wage was paid by Japanese sponsors who were interested in the European market. One clause within the agreement regarded the acquisition, by Fuji Television, of the broadcasting rights of Genoa matches, to air them in Japan.

Right from the start, it was clear that Miura’s experience in the peninsula was doomed to be unlucky. He made his debut against Milan on 4 September 1994, and it only took a few minutes for Franco Baresi to show him the roughness of Italian football. After a tremendous nudge to the face, Miura bravely stayed on the pitch until half-time but, once at the hospital, the diagnosis was a nose fracture and a concussion.

Anyway, ‘King Kazu’ was determined to make an impact in Italian football, and so he returned to the grass in November against Cremonese. The impact he longed for was eventually made in the following match – the derby against Sampdoria – when he managed to score the first ‘Japanese’ goal in the history of European football. Unfortunately for him and for Genoa, the match ended 3-2 to their rivals.

That campaign was one of misfortune for the whole team. Miura strove to work it out but three goals he scored were disallowed in three consecutive matches. The one in the derby remained his only goal in Italy, and he scraped together 24 appearances. At the end of the season, after Genoa were relegated to Serie B, he decided to go back to Japan.

Miura is often regarded as the father of all exotic football scams. People made fun of him, laughing at his interviews because he couldn’t understand Italian, and considered him nothing more than a marketing manoeuvre. While the latter may have been true, most of the thoughts about him were influenced by a mindset typical of a period when football was considered to be linked primarily to Europe and South America. As a consequence of such ignorance, people used to believe it impossible that someone coming from Asia could be able to play the game properly.

Miura’s season in Italy was genuinely disastrous. But, despite this, he wasn’t the hack many thought.

The 15-year-old Kazuyoshi, completely alone, moved to Brazil to follow his dream of becoming a football player. It was 1982 and the move wasn’t easy for him. He spoke of his first years abroad in a recent discussion with Neymar on Japanese television, saying that at the time he was surrounded by curious Brazilians, whose language was unknown to him. He worked hard to learn Portuguese, searching for a professional team in the process.

He started playing at Clube Atlético Juventus. There he was scouted by Santos, who signed him in 1986. Ultimately, Miura lived in Brazil for eight years, playing for various teams and making a name for himself in Brazilian football. In a country where even defenders have a highly refined touch and teams rely on technical players, the young Japanese forward fitted in. His feints, his ball control and his speed were highly appreciated by the fans, who often applauded his running down the flank.

He eventually moved back to Japan to become the main figure of the national league when it was founded in 1992. Then, after his short spell in Italy, Miura left his country once again to try another European adventure, this time at Dinamo Zagreb, in 1999. It bore no better results than his time with Genoa and he left after six months. From that moment on, apart from a three-month loan to Australian side Sydney FC, he never left his home country again.

In 2005, Miura moved to Yokohama FC, where he’s currently playing, in Japan’s second-tier league. Yes, you read it right: King Kazu is still playing football today, in 2016. His physique is still better than those of many footballers two decades his junior—he keeps running, he keeps scoring, and he keeps doing his iconic celebration dance every time. All this at the age of 49.

He has no intention to stop. His contract has recently been extended and, with his goal against Cerezo Osaka on 7 August 2016, he set a world record. Looking at how he still moves on the pitch, he seems inclined to extend the record.

Seeing his dedication despite a not-so-green age, and watching YouTube videos of an embarrassed Asian kid interviewed by Brazilian television, talking in faltering Portuguese and showing his juggling skill between words, one can do nothing but love the player.

The hope is that, one day, Italian football fans will finally understand that Kazuyoshi Miura was not a sort of circus freak. Rather, he was a boy coming from the other side of the world who tried everything to pursue his dreams. Those still not convinced can watch the highlights of one of his latest performances and witness someone who, on the verge of middle age, continues to love and play the beautiful game.

Words by Franco Ficetola @Franco92C14

Franco is a son of Rome who grew up admiring Totti’s assists and chasing a ball through the streets of the capital’s suburbs. Now he spends most of his time watching football matches, regardless of the league, the country or the level. He also writes for @JustFootball