The story of Masakiyo Maezono is perhaps the greatest melodrama in the history of the J.League. He entered professional football a year before the J.League started, and was one of the league's most promising young players in its first two or three years, as a member of the Yokohama Flugels. Christened the "golden boy" of Japanese sport in 1996, after leading Japan's Olympic team to victory over Brazil in Atlanta, Maezono came home to a hero's welcome. His face seemed to be everywhere, on commercials, licensed goods, and every sports newspaper in the country. He won a big raise and a high-profile transfer to Verdy Kawasaki at the end of the 1996 season, and it looked like he was a big star in the making. Maezono was brought into the national team, and during 1996 and 97, when the team was fighting for qualification the 1998 World Cup, he received 22 caps and scored four goals for Japan. As the World Cup year began, the golden boy still seemed to retain his lustre . . .
No one is quite sure what happened next. There are a number of "explanations, many of which probably have an element of truth. Strongest of all were the rumours that Maezono had a hidden drinking problem, which was badly exacerbated by the "party hearty" atmosphere at Verdy. He fell in with a crowd of hard-drinking, pub-crawling, womanizing teammates and basically drank himself into the gutter.
After scoring just 3 goals in 1998, and being told by Verdy that he was no longer needed, Maezono tried to revive his career with a move to Brazil. But despite a big contract and a favourable welcome at Santos, Maezono proved to be a big flop in Brazil as well. He soon was shipped off to second-division club Goias, and at the end of 1999 the tiny Bahia club also found him to be useless baggage. Maezono crawled back to Japan as a tarnished has-been, the sparkle of his midfield play long since faded and his reputation as the "golden boy" in tatters.
After a semi-productive stint at J2 club Shonan Bellmare, Maezono was brought back into the Verdy fold in 2001, in an effort by the former champions to resurrect their golden years. But Maezono proved to be as faded as Verdy's dreams of glory, and the club released him in mid-2002 with disappointment among all concerned. Maezono tried to resurrect his career with a move to Korea, but he never did reclaim the form he had in his younger years, and following a few feeble years with the Anyang LG Cheetahs, he found himself on the street once again, this time with nowhere to turn.
Sadly, as is the case for many alcoholics, the downward spiral continued after his playing career ended. Though he was briefly employed as a colour commentator, employers soon soured on the fact that he often showed up with a ruddy glow on his face and a well-lubricated tongue . . . . before long the TV offers also faded. Only after a hugely embarassing incident in which a blind-drunk Maezono beat up a cab driver and stumbled off without paying (he was arrested but charges were dropped) did the former J.League star finally hit bottom, admit the problem, and begin to put his life back together.
Today, Maezono seems to be sober and is making occasional public appearances again. He is still remembered more for his spectacular failures and public embarassments than for any success. But that take on his career is an unfair one, in our view. Maezono certainly will go down as a monument to self-destructive behaviour -- a fallen hero who squandered a tremendous natural gift and left fans wondering what might have been, if he could have conquered his personal demons.
But his career statistics -even including the numbers compiled after he had pickled himself in shochu - are still quite impressive. His contributions as captain of the Olympic Team in Atlanta, alone, earned him a place in the pantheon of Japan's football heroes, while his sparkling contributions to the Yokohama Flugels were one of the things that still make that team memorable, years after it has ceased to exist.
Masakiyo Maezono will always be remembered as a tragic, deeply flawed and fallen hero. . . . . But a hero, all the same.