Where is the king? He hasn’t been seen on the pitch as the team warmed up. Nobody spotted him getting off the team bus. He was not behind the main tribune, where the players usually walk into the dressing rooms during the hours before a home game starts. Not even the notoriously excited media have been able to record an interview. When confirming accreditation a few days before the match, a league official said in an apologetic voice, “We are happy to accommodate you at the game. But he will probably not be present.” In fact, he isn’t.

And yet, he’s omnipresent. In German theatre, directors and actors have a saying: the king is always played by the others. In other words, a character only becomes a great one once he is acknowledged and treated as great by those around him. And if that is the criterion, the king is here indeed. Getting off the train at Mitsuzawa-kamicho station, in Yokohama, he proudly looks down from an oversized poster to the commuters sliding up the escalators. Dressed in the light-blue shirt of his employer, he is smiling self-consciously, surrounded by his younger, and smaller, teammates. During the 15-minute walk to Mitsuzawa Stadium, his name is carved into traffic light poles and placards hung on fences show paintings of his face in iconic style reminiscent of portraits of Che Guevara and Diego Maradona. In the stadium, signs on all sides praise him as “King Kazu”. This man, it seems, doesn’t need to be physically present to reign over Yokohama, a city of 3.7 million people, the second-largest in Japan.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in May, almost half-way into the 2017 season of J2 League, the second tier of Japanese professional football. Yokohama FC have made a good start, challenging at the top of the table. Sixth spot at the end of the year would be enough to take part in a play-off round for promotion to J1 League. The question nobody dares to ask, although it lies like a veil over the crowd in the stadium, is this: what if we make it to J1? Will the king give us another year of his reign? Will he? The answer that nobody gives, for the lack of a direct question, seems obvious. Of course, he would.

King Kazu has been a veteran for longer than many football fans can remember. He has extended his career with one-year contracts every season since the early 2000s. There have been waves of speculation for the last 15 autumns that the current season might be his last, actually, eventually, surely, but shockingly. As everybody knows, a footballer has only so many years of an active career. Only few exceptions seem to prove otherwise, but just for a while. The Italian goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi played at the top level until he was 39, so did the German midfielder then libero Lothar Matthäus. The Brazilian world champion of 2002 Rivaldo only quit at 42. The England international Stanley Matthews retired in 1965 at the age of 50 years and five days. Kazuyoshi Miura surpassed his record as the oldest active professional footballer in March 2017 when his team drew 1-1 with V-Varen Nagasaki1. A week later, he scored the only goal in a win over Thespakusatsu Gunma. There is no older active professional footballer or goalscorer in the history of the game. Kazu’s reign over Yokohama, and the whole football-loving part of Japan, was manifested once again.

Strangely, the fact that this home game on a Sunday in May takes place without him is no major disappointment. “My knee hurts,” Kazu Miura had been quoted as saying by the sports daily Nikkan Sports, a message that has been heard so many times over the past few years that most fans will have seen it, nodded and thought, “as expected”. At the moment the referee blew the whistle for kick-off, it even seemed like a relief for the 11,000 Yokohama FC supporters. It was as though they were thinking, “Finally, the old guy isn’t playing.” Of course, that sentence is nowhere to be heard. But it’s obvious that the absence of the king is not a drawback to the pace of Yokohama’s game. The fans are no less excited, either.

In the absence of Miura, a 1.90m tall Norwegian, Ibba Laajab, played the role of lone striker. The midfield behind Ibba tried to feed him mainly with long balls rather than short passes. In fact, Yokohama FC’s style isn’t marked by elegance or creativity, so it helps to have a solid rock in front who can press, push, run and fight. The short and skinny King Kazu cannot boast of these qualities, these days less so than ever. His absence seems helpful. In the eighth minute, Ibba hammers a free kick into the top-right corner of the goal of the visitors Nagoya Grampus. After scoring, the heavy, not-too-fast striker sprints half the length of the pitch in joy; the crowd is now his crowd. “Ib-ba! Ib-ba! Ib-ba!” it screams. The “King Kazu” signs disappear, covered by the raised arms of jumping fans. Was anyone talking about a king here?

The fact that Kazu’s athletic peak was reached and surpassed many years ago, and that in mere footballing terms, he is no longer anything close to being a leading figure on the pitch, has led to strange feelings among Japan’s many football lovers. His merits are indisputable. Kazu Miura was Japan’s first football superstar. He played in Italy’s Serie A, for Dinamo Zagreb and for various Brazilian teams and became Asia’s footballer of the year. When the J.League was inaugurated in 1993, he was the only Japanese player who could shine next to ageing stars like Zico, Gary Lineker or Pierre Littbarski. Kazu won the J.League and the trophy for the top goalscorer. He led Japan in the qualification series for the 1994 World Cup, netting 12 goals in 14 games, but an unfortunate loss against Saudi Arabia blocked his way to the tournament.

It can safely be said that it was mainly thanks to his quality and fame in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s that football replaced baseball as the country’s most popular sport. Kazu has inspired millions of children to take up the game, both in Japan and abroad. But in a country where virtues such as loyalty and gratitude arguably carry an even heavier weight than in most other places, such a high profile comes with a challenge for an ageing star: who decides when enough is enough?

At half-time in the Mitsuzawa Stadium, the answer seems clear in sporting terms. Yokohama are 1-0 ahead against Nagoya, thanks to a goal scored by a striker playing on the king’s throne. Sure, sometimes feelings of nostalgia trump current abilities or the lack of them. After all, the chance of seeing Kazu Miura play one more game is a major reason why Yokohama FC draw fairly large crowds to second-division games in their narrow 1950s-style stadium. Often enough, more than 10,000 spectators fill the stands, numbers that certain teams in other countries’ top tiers would dream of.

Miura’s status in Japan today can’t be compared to any other case in global football. He is not the Japanese Maradona, because he lacks not only the successes and quality but also the ingredients that caused the Argentinian’s fall. He has no history of drug addiction, or weight problems and has never been close to a rock star-like death. Miura also doesn’t quite resemble the status of Lothar Matthäus. Germany’s leader of the same era is remembered for his dynamic playing style and for hilarious interviews in which he would refer to himself in the third person. Kazu Miura never had the physical strength of his German counterpart nor his arrogance.

Miura certainly isn’t a person free from vanity. His face can be seen advertising all sorts of products throughout Japan: fashion, cosmetic products and new beverages. It is probably even more visible than that of the prime minister Shinzo Abe. But while the right-wing politician’s notorious talks about the rebirth of a “beautiful nation” are splitting the country, King Kazu is uniting it. To most Japanese, whether they follow football or not, he is the living example of achieving the impossible: he undertook an adventure which at the time few even knew could be attempted. And until today, he manages to combine incomparable fame with coming across as a pretty smart and nice guy. Kazu Miura personifies football, and all the myths around it, as no other person.

In fact, Miura’s life itself has been a myth. Long ago, it turned into the most widely-read football manga that has ever been written, Captain Tsubasa. The print editions have sold over 80 million copies and the anime, which was massive in Germany, Spain and Italy, shaped the minds of hundreds of new players. Whoever goes through the first episodes of the saga will find it hard not to notice the similarities. At the age of 15, young Kazu, from a small town in Shizuoka prefecture near Japan’s iconographic volcano Fuji, quit school to become a footballer. The idea seemed ludicrous for at least two reasons. First, Japan in the early 1980s was a booming economy in which education was placed over many other things. The idea was that hard study for high grades in school would secure entry to university and high-prestige jobs, which most parents expected from their children. Second, Kazu’s envisioned alternative lifestyle was simply impossible in Japan. There was no professional league. Football was played, at a low level, only in corporate teams. Though Yasuhiko Okudera had already turned professional with the German Bundesliga team FC Köln in 1977, the midfielder was an exception, indeed one who had had to leave his country for that dream.

Since Kazu knew that, he decided to do the same. But instead of choosing Germany, a country famous for effective but not beautiful football, Kazu tried his luck in Brazil, just as the little Tsubasa did in the manga. It was 1982: Italy had just won the World Cup and the Japanese manga artist Yoichi Takahashi was introducing his comic book series in a local magazine. “This is the story of Tsubasa,” it began, “a kid just like you, who was passionate about football and dreamt about becoming the number one player in the world.”

Tsubasa Oozora, the cartoon version of Kazuyoshi Miura, also grew up next to Mount Fuji. After winning several national youth championships, Tsubasa left for Brazil alongside his mentor, the former world-class striker turned alcoholic Roberto Hongo. Hongo was built as a blend of the classic football wizards Tostão, who played alongside Pelé, and Socrates, the 1980s idol. With the Brazilian coaching him for São Paulo, Tsubasa won the Brasileirão and drew the attention of Barcelona, moving to la Liga for a glorious season. Despite the whims of Van Gaal and a fierce competition with Rivaldo, young Tsubasa earned a spot in the starting squad, defeated the evildoer Real Madrid and became the star of the Spanish league.

A whole generation of footballers was raised among the many young fans who cheered for Tsubasa: Messi, Iniesta, Del Piero, Podolski, Torres… Professional players’ social media accounts are still teeming with images of the hero’s friends and rivals. Players born in the late 1980s and the early 1990s were the first generation who looked up to a cartoon as a role model rather than to real people. Fernando Torres’s childhood tells the tale of his entire generation. “I started playing football because of a cartoon series I watched with my brother every time we got home from school.” It was Captain Tsubasa.

The Torres brothers struggled to get a signal on their TV, he recalls now, but every kid in the neighbourhood was into it. They had no choice but to work the aerial around until Tsubasa’s image was recognisable enough to follow the games. “There were two young players, a goalkeeper and a striker, and they went from youth teams in Japan to playing in Europe and in the World Cup. It was like a dream. I wanted to be like them.”

Torres’s life went from watching the anime to becoming part of it. As the story evolved, Tsubasa’s rivals and teammates began to look more and more like real players. At first, the manga featured characters who resembled Socrates, Rummenigge and Maradona. Three decades after its inception, the inspiration from the likes of Rivaldo, Thuram and Buffon was undeniable. The case of Torres is paradigmatic. When Tsubasa established himself as Barcelona’s main player in the early 21st century, a new star rose in the manga story wearing the red and white stripes of Atlético de Madrid. Unsurprisingly, the new character was Fernando Torres.

The comic book story was written, and still is, at the same pace as King Kazu progresses in his career. There were some problems raising from this fiction: since nobody sees beyond the pages of the ever-smiling Tsubasa, no one imagines the darkest hours of Kazu Miura. Kazu’s life in Brazil was far from being a fairytale. His early days there were miserable. He was a street vendor, a tour guide, he worked in hostels and lived in the slums of São Paulo, he tried out for many teams and faced rejection more often than most. He looked to have failed until Santos signed him when he turned 19. Kazu was never a key player in the team, but his presence was enough to be noticed by a Japanese correspondent and after that he became history.

He was still a prince when he went back to Japan in 1990. The first professional football championship, the J.League, was about to be born, and the organisers needed a local star to join Zico, Lineker and Littbarski. As an MVP of the inaugural season, it was the first time that the rest of the cast (press and fans) had begun to play the role for him. In 1994, Kazu Miura was crowned King of Japanese football.

In a chicken or egg dilemma, the stories of Captain Tsubasa and Kazu Miura begin to interweave in the late 1990s. It’s difficult to know whether real life was inspiring the cartoon or the other way around. While Tsubasa had special moves, like the drive shot and the overhead kick, the sports press had also come up with the Kazu feint and the Kazu dance to spice up the J.League. Tsubasa went to play in Europe and so did Kazu. The striker played a season in Italy for Genoa and then moved to Dinamo Zagreb, where he became the first Japanese player to appear in a Champions League game. Both married the women of their dreams. And, finally, both are still on the pitch.

Kazu Miura has been in Japan since 1999. He has never played in a World Cup, although he joined the national futsal team, as a symbolic act, in 2012. However, in a fantasy twist that hasn’t been taken to the manga pages yet, his former rival Pierre Littbarski, having turned coach, convinced him to turn out for Sydney FC in the Club World Championship 2005. Japan hosted the tournament but, with Kazu among their ranks, the Aussies felt at home. They defeated Egypt’s Al Ahly for fifth place, but the king didn’t score. He has been in his Yokohama FC court ever since.

Had the manga story followed King Kazu’s real life career, there would have surely been an episode on 26 February 2017, Miura’s 50th birthday. Coincidentally, it was also the first match day of the 2017 season. More coincidentally, Yokohama FC had their opening game scheduled at home. It takes some fantasy to imagine that the J.League had not added some event planning to the otherwise lottery-led scheduling of match days. As it had to happen, the match became a Kazu Miura gala. For days, there had been speculation over whether he would play. “My knee hurts,” media had again reported. A few days before the game, the king decided, “It’s okay!” And when the king declares he can play, who would the coach be to not to give him the honour?

The Mitsuzawa Stadium was filled to the last spot and before kick-off special Kazu’s 50th birthday merchandise, ranging from scarves and shirts to towels reading “King Kazu” or some similar message, had sold out. As the players entered the pitch from below the main stand, even the tribune housing the supporters of the visiting side Matsumoto Yamaga turned into a barrage of camera flashes. Miura was congratulated before the game, as he would be afterwards. In a story of Captain Tsubasa, the hero would have probably scored the winning goal, as he would do a few weeks later against Thespakusatsu.

But seeing the whole of this game revealed a reality that is mostly hidden from two-minute TV highlights or news articles. With more than 30 professional football seasons and 50 years in his legs, the age factor, which he seemed to defy so incredibly, was notable. An uninformed spectator would have asked why this slow man was playing up front. Not only did Miura pose no danger to the visitors’ defence, he also did not help much in either creating his team’s play or challenging that of Matsumoto. Midway through the first half, Miura had the ball at his feet in the opponents’ box but couldn’t shoot on target. In the second half, he found himself in space 20 metres out and could have either passed or shot. But what he did looked like some mixture of the two.

The fact that Miura played, and stayed on the field for 65 minutes, could only be explained by the meaning he has for the club of Yokohama, the football industry and in a way the whole country. After the final whistle had blown, Miura was decorated with some special award only created for him, although football-wise he certainly wasn’t the man of the match. Following the short ceremony, Miura jogged a slow lap of the stadium. The many placards and flags saluting the king were impossible to overlook. But it was also notable how the whole show seemed somewhat orchestrated. Wherever the star moved, the crowd’s cheering was louder than elsewhere. Miura was accompanied by a person who seemed to give cheering instructions to the fans so that the TV pictures would look especially charming.

If you only looked at the behaviour of the otherwise excited and creative Japanese spectators, the real experience on the ground wasn’t so overwhelming. Yes, the merchandise sold out before kick-off. Yes, Miura was acknowledged as the king in every corner of the stadium. But during the game, his touches did not draw particular reaction from the crowd. Neither before nor after the game were there songs for their living legend. Not even his substitution seemed a particularly special moment for fans. Pretty much like someone’s birthday – an event that happens only once a year, but every year. If the unasked question lying over the game in May against Nagoya Grampus was what would become of the king’s reign if Yokohama were promoted to J1 League, then on this day it was: is this enough now?

An hour after the game, fans had already been asked to leave the stadium while reporters were guided onto the empty pitch. Another half hour later, a freshly showered and extravagantly styled gentleman walked over the grass as though it were a catwalk. He wore a suit in shiny pink and a white shirt with an extra-high collar. Clearly enjoying the reaction of a stunned media, who in turn were enjoying their king’s joy in their reaction, Miura took his time. He walked provocatively slowly towards a paper wall printed with sponsor names in front of which a birthday cake had been prepared for him and around which the media were waiting. After he’d cut and eaten it, the questions were closer to celebrity journalism than sports reporting. “Kazu, why are you wearing a suit that colour?” “Kazu, what birthday presents did you receive from your family members?” “Kazu, how does all this feel?”

The king generously took his time and answered with caution in long, wise sentences. The only Western journalist in the crowd wanted to know something else. In order not to stand out, he tried to ask his question in typical Japanese style, as indirectly and gently as possible. “Mr. Miura,” he started, “when people in Europe hear of your story most will not believe it. You are 50 now and still playing. So, they will wonder: has there ever been a point in your career when you thought about bringing your active playing career to an end?” Miura, smiling like a diplomat, gave an answer shorter than any other on this day, consisting of one word: “No.” A moment later, he nodded, the crowd around him opened up and he walked off.

Was the question, as indirectly as it was formulated, an insult to His Majesty? While Miura’s short answer to this elephant-in-the-room question appeared in news articles in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, it was not mentioned in domestic TV features the same night nor in long print articles the next morning. The media abided by their role. TV channels aired coverage that made Miura look like the leading figure of his team. The reporters also had found fans calling him a “kami-sama”, a god, and cut interviews with a foreign reporter in a way that only words of praise were included. During the weeks following the birthday game, much of the talk of the town revolved around football. People would be quick to claim greatness for their national – no, global – sensation. “Kazu is really amazing, right?” And it would have been hard to find a Japanese person who would not have answered very clearly, “Yes, he is so amazing.”

Indeed, Kazuyoshi Miura is exceptional. Few people have his physical fitness level at his age. Few people have created a football boom in a country and helped it last for more than 20 years. And it is similarly exceptional how willing the Japanese public is to court him as the infallible king. This can be interpreted as irony or a great script for the next manga story: when King Kazu was part of the team on his 50th birthday in February against Matsumoto, Yokohama FC won 1-0. When he was absent due to another knee injury in May, the side wasn’t so lucky. In the second half, Nagoya Grampus were awarded two strange penalty kicks, which turned around the match for the visitors. After all, the role of the king has to be played by the others.