Mutsuhiko Nomura’s football career has spanned 18 World Cups, or 70 years, to be exact.
Now the silver-maned former Japanese national team player is a member of the brand new over-80s division of Tokyo’s “Soccer For Life” (SFL) league, which played its first match this month.
The sprightly 83-year-old and his teammates are among a growing number of seniors pushing the boundaries of active living in Japan, one of the world’s fastest ageing societies.
“When I was a kid, men in their 50s and 60s were considered “grandpas”,” Nomura, already a member of several amateur teams, said after a pre-season practice match in February.
“And now, we’re all still at it in our 80s. It’s shocking.”
As Japan’s average lifespan inches up, people aged 65 and more form nearly a third of its population of 126 million, with life expectancy, now at 85, ranking among the world’s highest.
That has brought societal changes, too: about a fifth of those older than 70 are employed, and the government encourages pensioners to start collecting later, by holding out the promise of larger deferred payments. Elderly security guards and shopkeepers have become a common sight.
“I think the formation of the 0-80 division is a reflection of what we’re seeing in Japanese society, where the elderly demographic can be active like this,” said Yutaka Ito, the secretary general of the SFL league.
It was only 20 years ago that Tokyo created a division for the 0-60 age group. In 2012, the 0-70 division followed, and five years later, the 0-75 category. At that rate, 0-80 was simply a matter of time.
With an average age of 83.5, however, stiff backs, creaky knees and laboured breathing were often on display as the players of the three SFL teams slogged through inaugural matches under a blazing sun last Wednesday.
But far from slowing down, Nomura has also taken to kicking the ball around with his daughter and granddaughter on weekends, teaching them tricks and building their love of the game.
“I sometimes go to watch the seniors play, and it makes me feel I should work hard,” said his 48-year-old daughter, Yuriko.
“I really admire him. I hope to be like him, and continue playing when I’m older.”