Japan's 'King Kazu' welcomes World Cup expansion

TOKYO (Reuters) - Kazuyoshi Miura, the oldest goalscorer in Japanese professional football, has welcomed FIFA’s decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026 and said he still dreamt of playing in the tournament for the first time.

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The 50-year-old known as ‘King Kazu’, who netted 12 goals for Japan on the road to France 1998 but has never played at a World Cup, said an expanded tournament would boost the game’s popularity in countries where it was a “minor sport”.

Asia is expected to get eight or nine places when the World Cup is expanded, compared to 4-1/2 in the current 32-team format.

“The first World Cup I saw only had 16 teams I think,” Miura told Reuters in an interview. (The number of teams was increased to 24 in 1982.)

“It was extremely difficult to become a representative of a continent. Even Asia, in my memory, only had two teams until recently (1998). And before that, only one (until 1982).

“And now, it is 4-1/2. I think it is a good change because countries where football is still a minor sport will have their chance too.”

Miura, who scored 55 goals in 89 internationals but last played for Japan nearly 17 years ago, said a combination of dreams and hard work were behind his extraordinary longevity.

“My secret? I don’t think I have one,” he added. “It is important to keep dreaming. So playing at the World Cup is still my dream.”

Miura extended his own J League record as the oldest goalscorer in Japanese professional football when he scored the only goal in Yokohama FC’s win over Thespa Kusatsu in J-League 2 earlier this month aged 50 years and 14 days.

“Scoring a goal is always a result of regular training -- how well you train, how motivated you are -- that’s more important (than my age),” he said.

Writing by Hardik Vyas/Simon Jennings in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris