They call him "King Kazu" and he is Asia’s best known footballer. For good reason – Japan’s chances at the World Cup in France will largely depend on the performance of this exceptional striker.
BY: JEREMY WALKER a sports journalist with almost 20 years' experience of reporting football in Europe and Asia. He now works for The Daily Yomiuri in Tokyo.
Three years ago, in the summer of 1995, Terry Venables was the coach of England preparing for an Umbro Cup friendly international against Japan at Wembley Stadium.
"What do you know about Japanese football?" Venables was asked at the press conference the day before the game.
"Not too much," replied Venables, "apart from the fact that they’ll be quick and skillful and have an outstanding player in Marakazu."
The English media scratched their heads, and so did their Japanese counterparts.
No one had heard of him, but all would become clear the following day at Wembley, where Japan gave a good account of themselves in a 2-1 defeat and had the thrill of equalizing with a header from Masami Ihara following an inswinging left-wing corner from ....... Kazuyoshi Miura.
Ah, so this is the man "El Tel" was referring to, and not some type of Aboriginal wind instrument.
Passarella knew Miura
The story moves on to December 1997, shortly after Argentina had been drawn with Japan, Croatia and Jamaica in Group H of the 1998 World Cup in France.
This time it was Argentina’s coach, Daniel Passarella, who was asked for his comments on Japanese football.
"I know they have a player of the highest quality in Kazuyoshi Miura, who has played in Italy’s Serie A," replied Passarella.
From London to Buenos Aires, the reputation of the Asian soccer superstar known simply as "Kazu" has spread far and wide, and the World Cup stage at last awaits the 31-year-old striker and talisman of Japan’s national team.
Although no longer guaranteed a place in the starting line-up, Miura’s name will be one of the first on the list of head coach Takeshi Okada when he announces his final 22 in May.
Miura’s experience of club football at the highest level on three continents (Asia, South America and Europe), his commitment to the cause and his professional approach on and off the field will be invaluable to Japan’s "rising sons".
So what advice will Kazu give to his younger teammates in the build-up to France?
"I will say that when you stand on the pitch, suddenly there’ll be like a high wall in front of you – and you’ll have to be really tough mentally to get over the wall.
"The most important thing is to believe in yourself, and to do your best."
As for Japan’s seeded opponents, Argentina, Miura will reassure his colleagues that "everyone is starting with zero points. Argentina haven’t got three points or anything yet, so there’s always a possibility we can win through to the second round."
It is this level-headed approach from "King Kazu" – as he is known by Japan’s "Ultra Nippon" supporters – that coach Okada hopes will rub off on to the rest of the squad.
Miura has been a mainstay of the national team since making his debut in the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing. His 86 caps make him Japan’s second most-capped international behind current skipper Masami Ihara (113) and his 54 goals put him second in the all-time scoring list behind Kunishige Kamamoto (73).
Seven years in Brazil
So the France World Cup will be a richly-deserved reward for his services to Japanese football in particular and Asian football in general.
Born in Shizuoka, the home of Japan’s famous Mount Fuji, Miura embarked on his own climb to the soccer summit by leaving for São Paulo, Brazil, as a 15-year-old high school student.
The trip was organized by a member of his local football association and Kazu would stay in Brazil for over seven years, maturing as a person and a player, studying videos of his heroes – "Rivelino, Garrincha and, of course, Pele" – and turning professional while still a teenager.
"The first three years were quite tough and I often felt homesick," he admits.
"After that it was okay because I learned the language and got my driver’s licence, so I could get about on my own.
"As a soccer player in Brazil I learned to have high morals, and never to be satisfied with the level you have reached. You must always try to build your mental spirit."
Kazu was still under contract with the Santos club when, in 1990, he was enticed back to Japan by an offer from Yomiuri Nippon Sports Club (later to become Verdy Kawasaki) and selection for the national squad.
A frustrating season in Italy
With Kazu reproducing his Brazilian trickery and samba celebrations, Japan won the Asian Cup continental championship for the first time in 1992, propelling him into mega-stardom in time for the spectacular J.League kick-off in 1993.
Miura was voted Player of the Year in 1993 as Verdy won the inaugural championship, and the following summer he left for Italy to join Genoa, the first Asian to play in Serie A.
Unfortunately, Genoa’s "Boy from Brazil, via Tokyo" was introduced to the back of Franco Baresi’s head early in the 1994-95 season and suffered damage to his nose and cheekbone.
It was a painful start to a frustrating season, during which he scored only one Serie A goal – in the Genoa derby against Sampdoria – before returning home to Verdy Kawasaki, where he has stayed ever since, despite persistent rumours of a transfer to Sporting Lisbon.
In the Asian qualifying tournament for France last year, Miura bagged 14 goals, including four in a 6-3 victory over Uzbekistan in the first game of the second stage. That was on September 7, and he hasn’t scored for Japan since, a drought which has cost him his starting place under tough new coach Okada.
Ever the professional, Miura has accepted the situation as an occupational hazard, especially for a 31-year-old.
"It’s true that there’s a newer generation gaining more power, and the public wanted to see change," said Miura, referring to the night he was the target of angry and abusive fans when a 1-1 home draw against the United Arab Emirates appeared to have cost Japan a spot in France.
"This kind of thing happens over a period of time, but I believe I have the same ability as the others, and also have abilities the others do not have.
"It’s a matter for the coach to make the decisions – but I believe in myself and will still try to achieve higher goals."
The football world has not seen the last of Kazuyoshi Miura – or of Marakazu for that matter.