Japan defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka may be just another Brazilian who has made the FIFA World Cup™, but he says the Samurai spirit is running in his blood.
Tulio acquired Japanese nationality in 2003 and has become the third Brazilian-born player to represent them at a FIFA World Cup, following Wagner Lopes in 1998 and Alessandro Santos in 2002 and 2006. But he is the first Brazilian of Japanese ancestry to stand on the big stage.
Tulio admits that as a child he never dreamed of fighting for the country which his grandparents left to seek their fortunes in Brazil. He remembers that his grandfather Yoshiyuki, who immigrated to Brazil at 11 and died last year at 92 as a retired coffee plantation owner, used to say: "We should never spoil Japanese pride in Brazil."
"No matter how, I wanted to repay my grandfather who was courageous enough to become a pioneer in Brazil," the 29-year-old Nagoya Grampus hardman said.
With his long, dark tied-back hair and vocal presence on the pitch, Tulio has become the pride of the 1.3 million-strong Japanese community in Brazil and is bringing qualities which are rare among most other Blue Samurai. "I have unrivalled weapons," he said, citing his "strong heading in aerial battles" and "fierce fighting spirit."
Tulio has scored seven goals in 37 matches for Japan since his debut in 2006, when he was denied a FIFA World Cup ticket by then Blue Samurai coach and legendary compatriot Zico but named the J.League player of the year. That goal-hungry quality is much needed for the former Asian champions who face the Netherlands, Cameroon and Denmark in Group E with a solid midfield but feeble firepower.
"Everybody recognises Tulio's scoring potential," Japan coach Takeshi Okada said. But he demanded Tulio follow the example of Brazil and Inter Milan centre-back Lucio who "returns to the defensive side with all his might".
Tulio has been held responsible for goals against Japan when he was too slow in coming back after joining the attack. Recurring injuries to his thighs and his straight-talking style have also made his career difficult.
The son of a self-made lawyer and his wife of Italian descent, Tulio was born in rural Palmeira d'Oeste in Sao Paulo state. He came to Japan aged 16 in 1998 after which he was scouted to play for a high school near Tokyo.
After making his J.League debut with Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2001, Tulio moved to Urawa Red Diamonds in 2004, helping the country's best-supported club win the AFC Champions League title in 2007. He signed with Nagoya in January.
Tulio was too busy learning Japanese during the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France when Japan made their finals debut. But he had time to watch them on television with his family when he was home during the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
"I felt as if electricity was running through my body," he said of how he reacted when he heard the Japanese anthem at that time. "I thought to myself, 'I've really become Japanese. I've changed at last.'"
Now he dreams of fighting against his homeland and it may be possible if the Selecao and the Blue Samurai reach the quarter-finals or the final. "If Japan win, it will turn Brazil upside down," Tulio said. "I want to ask my father and mother which country they will cheer for. But in any way, I seriously want to beat Brazil's national team."