Japan's defensive inspiration
© AFP

Strapping central-defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka has increasingly been a cornerstone of a Japanese side that recently created a tiny slice of history by becoming the first team in the world to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. It is a small but notable achievement for a nation that only reached its first FIFA World Cup in 1998, and yet another sign that the Blue Samurai are a squad on the up. The charismatic and influential Tanaka has become a regular under the reign of coach Takeshi Okada who assumed control in 2007.

Born in São Paulo to a Japanese-Brazilian father and Italian-Brazilian mother, Tanaka, or Tulio as he is often referred, moved to Japan aged 15, and continues a trend of players with Brazilian heritage playing for Japan. Tanaka is renowned as an inspirational figure whenever he dons the shirt for Japan, or his club side Urawa Red Diamonds.

Despite a remarkable aerial ability, as shown last week with a headed goal against Australia in the team's final FIFA World Cup qualifier, Tanaka is also adept with the ball at his feet. In fact, Tanaka sometimes play in central midfield, but even when holding up the backline, he is often seen dribbling forward in the manner of a libero.

Arduous campaign
Tanaka featured in 12 of his nation's 14 matches in qualifying for South Africa 2010. It was an arduous campaign over 18 months played in such diverse and remote locations as Australia, Uzbekistan, and Qatar, with a win in Tashkent sealing qualification with two matches to spare. "The qualifying campaign was more successful than I thought it could be," says Tanaka. "There was no easy games throughout the preliminaries, but we played with belief and qualified for the World Cup as the result."

Following qualification Okada stated his ambition was to reach the semi-final's at South Africa 2010. With Japan's best effort a last 16 appearance at home in 2002 it would appear a lofty ambition, but unsurprisingly the determined Tanaka backs his mentor fully. "Of course," when asked is such a goal achievable. "I, myself, believe that it is possible, and also think that we have the power and ability to realize it."

I, myself, believe that it (South Africa 2010 semi-finals) is possible, and also think that we have the power and ability to realize it,
Japan defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka.

Last week's loss with an under strength side in Australia was a rare blip for Japan and future competitors underestimate the Blue Samurai at their peril. "We still have almost one year to the final competition," says the powerfully-built 28-year-old. "It is important that we should understand what we have to do well and keep it in our mind to enrich ourselves in this coming year. I wish to help narrow the difference between Japan and the higher-ranked countries."

Leading from the back
While not the captain of the national team, Tanaka's leadership qualities shine through, though he humbly plays down his importance to the team. "There is not only one leader, but various leaders in the team. Each player shows leadership in different ways."

Tanaka played a pivotal role in Urawa achieving long-waited continental glory when the club lifted the AFC Asian Champions League crown in 2007. It was a momentous moment for the side who had been underachievers on the Asian stage despite being Asia's best-supported club with their Saitama Stadium averaging as many as 46,000 in 2007. The club won their inaugural domestic title a year earlier but it has been relatively lean pickings since. "Of course, I believe that Urawa is able to regain glory soon," says Tanaka now in his sixth season at the Reds.

Tanaka however, harbours ambitions of playing at the highest level, "I want the challenge of playing in Europe and hope to someday attain such." Perhaps Japan taking South Africa 2010 by storm will be the stage that elevates Marcus Tulio Tanaka to greater recognition.