Japanese great Shinji Ono retired from professional football Sunday as his J-League first-division side Consadole Sapporo lost 2-0 at home to Urawa Reds in the final round of the season.
The former Samurai Blue and Feyenoord midfielder, hailed as a footballing genius and one of the most technically gifted players Japan has produced, was the oldest player in the Japanese top flight at 44.
Making his first J1 start in 11 years, Ono donned the captain's armband, along with the No. 44 jersey matching his age, in a 22-minute swan-song appearance against one of his former clubs. He shook hands with players on both teams before exiting the Sapporo Dome pitch to rapturous applause.
While he may have slowed down, Ono still showed he had a silky touch with a number of incisive passes, including one that led to a 19th-minute free-kick outside the box, which he duly took before coming off for Supachok Sarachat.
"It was a short time with 20 minutes on the pitch, but I feel I could show what I'm capable of," Ono said at the post-match ceremony, which included video messages from former Feyenoord teammate Robin van Persie and former Japan midfielder Junichi Inamoto.
"I also want to send a word to my mother, who passed away on Oct. 17. Thank you for giving birth to me and letting me meet this wonderful thing called football."
Sapporo finished the season 12th while Asian champions Urawa ended fourth on 57 points, unable to overtake Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who held onto third place on 58 points with a late 1-0 win at seventh-place Avispa Fukuoka.
Urawa defender Alexander Scholz scored a 58th-minute penalty after the ball hit Sapporo captain Hiroki Miyazawa's foot and deflected onto his arm. Former Japan and Porto attacker Shoya Nakajima doubled the lead in the 72nd minute, his left-footed effort going through the legs of a defender and into the bottom corner.
Ono remains Japan's youngest footballer to play at a World Cup, featuring as an 18-year-old during the Samurai Blue's 1998 tournament debut in France.
The Shizuoka Prefecture native joined Urawa in 1998 just months before his first World Cup, and guided his nation to the runners-up spot at the World Youth Championship, now the U-20 World Cup, in April 1999 in Nigeria, leading a "golden generation" of players including midfielders Inamoto, Yasuhito Endo and striker Naohiro Takahara.
But the playmaker ruptured his left knee ligament during the Sydney Olympic qualifier against the Philippines in July of that year, an injury from which he admittedly never fully recovered.
Ono nevertheless became the first Japanese player to lift a major European trophy when he won the UEFA Cup, now the Europa League, with Feyenoord in 2002, his first season after moving to the Dutch powerhouse from Urawa the previous summer.
Ono played at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and scored six goals in 56 matches in total for Japan. He returned to Urawa from Feyenoord in 2006 and won the J1, Emperor's Cup and Asian Champions League titles over the next two seasons.
He had later stints at Germany's Bochum, Shimizu S-Pulse, Western Sydney Wanderers, Sapporo and Okinawa-based FC Ryukyu, then in the Japanese second tier, before he returned to Sapporo in 2021. He scored 29 goals in 207 J1 games.
"I have no regrets ending my career as a professional footballer. I had many injuries but got to this day thanks to a lot of support from many people," Ono said at his press conference.
"My football life doesn't end here. I want to help Japanese football in my next stage of life if I can in some way."
Newly crowned champions Vissel Kobe wrapped up their maiden title-winning campaign with a 1-0 win at Gamba Osaka to finish on 71 points, seven clear of 2022 winners Yokohama F Marinos, who lost 3-1 at Kyoto Sanga.
Marinos forward Anderson Lopes netted their only goal to bring his tally for the season to 22, making him joint top scorer with Kobe forward Yuya Osako.
Yokohama FC were relegated on 29 points after losing 2-1 at Kashima Antlers, who finished fifth. Nagoya Grampus dropped to sixth after drawing 1-1 at home to Kashiwa Reysol.
Kawasaki Frontale won 1-0 at Sagan Tosu, while FC Tokyo also won 1-0 at Shonan Bellmare. Albirex Niigata won by the same score against visiting Cerezo Osaka.