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soccer aces going strong at 70 plus

By unknown | Oct 06, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

The goalkeeper trudges off the pitch, disappointed that he hardly touched the ball during the game.

The goalkeeper trudges off the pitch, disappointed that he hardly touched the ball during the game.

He's keen to show his superior skills even though he wears a brace on his left knee and his right leg is heavily bandaged.

Shinichi Setoh is nearly 90 years and the oldest player amongst Japan's veteran footballers, perhaps the oldest soccer player in the world.

He is one of many elderly gentlemen who play in Japan's over 70s football team.

In other countries players become 'veterans' at the age of 35, but in Japan, longevity is a norm as the life expectancy of the average Japanese man is 82 years.

This puts the country at the top of the world league, second only to tiny nations like Andorra and Macao. This is because the traditional Japanese diet is based on eating fish, rice and vegetables cooked in minimal oil, and relies less on red meat, dairy products and processed foods. Keeping fit during old age is just as important as diet.

Setoh trains five days a week at the gym and plays football once a month. He's been playing football since he was a boy, at age 17 he played forward and almost made it to the Japanese 1936 Olympic team.

When he started working, he played for the company football team and helped coach the St. Louis Washington University college team in the 1960s when he worked in the USA.

Japan is an aging society with numbers of older players, increasing tremendously. The matured players want to keep going for as long as they can and are keen for competition.

Last year a new annual Masters Tournament was introduced, called The Royal over 70s, East versus West.

It is organised by the Soccer Old Boys Inter-High School (SOI), a group of men who used to play together before World War II.

Some referees are top internationals. It is prestigious enough for the Japan Football Association President, Saburo Kawabuchi, to attend and that attracts sponsorship from the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi.

Today, for the second tournament, players have travelled from all over Japan to play in the national stadium in Tokyo.

The sports stadium is virtually empty with few friends and relatives and the players are thrilled to be playing.

Entrants were drawn for a place to play in this year's tournament, as over 270 applied, but only 170 were successful, including 27 players over 80 years.

The participants are split into two sides, the East and West sides, based on their area of residence. Each side has six teams which are divided by age to make sure the players face opposition from the same generation.

The games last for 20 minutes with a player 15 minutes break in between. Substitutions are unlimited and players can rejoin the game even after being substituted. There is no overall winner since all the matches are played on a once-off basis. This is the highlight of the year for these elderly players and amazingly there were no injuries during this year's match.

"It's important for elderly people to have an opportunity to play like this. I must say, their physical fitness level is impressive," says Terushige Kohno, a professor of St. Marianna University School of Medicine and one of the volunteer doctors on hand during the tournament.

The veteran footballers keep their fitness level up by training a couple of days a week playing round about 25 matches a year with friends from SOI or a veterans club, Parus FC, which has branches in Tokyo and the surrounding region.

Many veterans travel to master tournaments overseas, for example, earlier this year Setoh and his team-mates went to Germany and played two matches against a local club and an old boys team from the Bundesliga club, Eintracht Frankfurt.

This was their fifth encounter with the Frankfurt side since 1981 and they had to win.

"We managed to score and had a good time. We were much older than some of their players, but they took the game with us seriously and played hard, which was good," says Setoh happily.

Another good player is Sueo Yamauchi, an 84-year-old who played for the West team in the over 80s match during the East versus West tournament.

Yamauchi was introduced to football at school near Sendai. He was a good player and qualified for a national school tournament as a representative of the Tohoku region before World War II.

Like many from his generation, the war changed everything. He was sent to the front-line and ended up in a Prisoners of War camp in Siberia for four years.

"After returning from the war, I was too busy with establishing my life and working for my family as an electrician. There was no time to play football," Yamauchi recalled.

One day during the 50s, he met his old friends and team-mates at a school reunion party. This reminded him of the pleasure they had playing football.

"They told me I should get back and play the game. It seemed like a good idea," Yamuchi says.

He joined the Parus Football Club and returned to the pitch. His first international game was against a Bulgarian team in an amateur friendly match.

Thereafter he went to play in Chinese Taipei, South Korea and Australia and for the past two years took part in the Veterans' Cup in the US.

"Everybody looks surprised at seeing me still playing the game. Why do I keep playing? Well, if you play the sport, you'd understand," says Yamauchi.


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