WHEN King Kazu signed a new one-year deal in January, to extend his record as the world’s oldest professional footballer, he certainly didn’t know he was providing inspiration, to a number of daredevils around the world.
The ageless warriors, who have been challenging the boundaries of retirement, in a game which has changed a lot.
It’s unlikely anyone will ever get close to Kazuyoshi Miura.
He even made a substitute appearance, for his Japanese top-flight club, Yokohama FC, in a League Cup match yesterday, at the age of 54 years and three months.
In September last year, at the age of 53 years and 210 days, he became the oldest player to ever feature in the Japanese top-flight league.
“All hail King Kazu, at 53 years and 210 days, Kazuyoshi Miura became the oldest player ever to play in the @J_LeagueEng, eclipsing the previous record of 45 years, 2 months and one day, set by Masashi NakayamaMiura,’’ tweeted FIFA.
Miura, who has been in the trenches of professional football since 1986, wants to play until after his 60th birthday.
And, when he decided to extend his contract at Yokohama FC, earlier this year, someone in Zimbabwe was following the developments.
Innocent Benza might not have Miura’s star profile and, unlike his Japanese counterparts, he is usually mocked by some critics, as someone who is making a mockery of the domestic Premiership.
They argue he is too old to be playing, in the local top-flight league, in a team he owns and even forms an attacking partnership, with his teenage son Tinotenda.
But, Benza, who turned 49 yesterday, appears to be in no mood to be crushed by the attacks from the critics and, with models like King Kazu to look up to, he says he is not ready to give up his passion to keep playing for his club Herentals.
As long as others, like the Japanese legend, are doing it, and even getting recognition, and congratulations from FIFA, Benza said he will not hang up his boots, anytime soon.
Ahead of the resumption of domestic football this weekend, where his team will take on record Zimbabwe league champions Dynamos, in their Chibuku Super Cup opener, he said he has never felt stronger.
“I would like to thank God, for keeping me fit to see this day (his 49th birthday) once again,” he told The Herald. “The gift of life is the most special one can get.
“I am really thankful for that. I would like to thank my teammates (who, ironically, include his son Tinotenda), family and friends for being there for me.
“And, I think the day has come at an ideal time, given my interest in football.
“Having gone for so long, without playing the game, we are back. It is a huge relief for us, as players, to be back doing what we always love.
“That we are playing Dynamos, in our opening match of the Chibuku Super Cup, is quiet motivating and, from my teammates, I can only ask for some good performances to spice my day.
“That is the present I am asking from them, if they can deliver that, I will be happy. But, overall, I am happy for the gift of life.’
Benza said he is not considering quitting the game, anytime soon, as he still feels fit.
“Well, I am feeling fit and I am still raring to go, I will play the game until my legs can no longer carry me, as for now, I am still very much in it.
“I have a special training regime that I follow and a healthy diet.
“I will be playing the game for a couple of years to come and I am not yet at a position to say when I will hang up my boots.”
And, of course, there is the inspiration he is getting from someone like King Kazu.
“It’s good to know that there are others, who are even older, who have also decided they will not be bullied by age and want to play as long as they can,’’ he said.
“Kazu is a case in point, you get inspiration from such supreme athletes and you tell yourself that, if they can do it, then you can also do it because we are all human beings.
“It’s not about the critics, they will always be some people who feel they have to criticise others, it’s how the world is but everyone has his or her life and it’s about living it to try and make a difference to the world.
“The world has been having a tough time, with the pandemic, and all the lives that we have lost, the changes we have made to the way we live and the businesses which have been shattered, with many people losing their jobs.
“We have all had to adjust and health has become a huge factor in our world, that is why we have all been thanking those frontline workers, who have been doing incredible things to keep our world safe.
“We are now all being encouraged to exercise, and take care of our bodies and, if I am providing an inspiration, for even just one person, by playing football at my age, then I am happy to be making a difference.’’
Herentals are in the same group as Dynamos, CAPS United, Harare City, Yadah and ZPC Kariba.
Coach Kumbirai Mutiwekuziva believes any team has a chance.
“It’s beyond doubt that Dynamos are a big club and they are the most successful team in the country,” said Mutiwekuziva.
“Our player, Innocent is celebrating his 49th birthday and we ought to give him something to smile about. He is our director, and club vice-captain and, if you look at the significance of a win against Dynamos, you will see that it will be something special.’’