Ben SprattComment

HULK: THE EARLY YEARS IN JAPAN

Ben SprattComment
HULK: THE EARLY YEARS IN JAPAN

"There was a crucial offer for my family that I couldn't turn down," confessed Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel as he signed a lucrative deal at Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian. However, there remains a tendency to loudly criticise the latest star heading for the Far East. Have they not made enough money already?

For whatever reason, footballers are seen differently to the rest of us. Apparently, they should forgo offers of riches to stay in a more 'fashionable' job. Greed and disloyalty cannot be tolerated by fans who demand every player loves their club.

Carlos Tevez, currently the world's highest-paid player at Shanghai Shenhua, has form in this regard, moving across Manchester to join City's new money after two years at United. The same Old Trafford supporters that cheered the forward en route to consecutive Premier League titles and a Champions League crown had little issue with branding him "that tw*t from Argentina, that money-grabbing wh*re".

Elsewhere in the Chinese Super League (CSL), Alex Teixeira's on-off move to Liverpool was very much off when he joined Jiangsu Suning, while Witsel, too, had previously seemed set for a switch to Italian giants Juventus.

But, for all the criticism of the expenditure as well as now attendances in China, the league is making waves that dwarf any attempts made by the Indian Super League (ISL) and even Major League Soccer. Although Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi may be untouchable at Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively, Chinese clubs are spending vast sums because they are aiming for the best that money can buy.

Far from the collection of misfits that can be spied in the ISL, where premium foreign signings are similarly limited, there are now genuine stars turning out on a weekly basis in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin. That's not to say it's not an eclectic mix of individuals.

These may be world-famous athletes, but, for many, it's not been a straightforward route to the world of multi-million Euro contracts.

Indeed, the man currently tearing up the AFC Champions League has taken a rather unique path to the top, having already conquered similar language barriers and time differences to those now faced again in China. Who could have foreseen, 10 years ago, that a player from the second tier of Japanese football would go on to establish himself as the face of the sport's newest frontier?

Sure enough though, in Tokyo in 2007, as a strapping, unstoppable force - and green from head to toe - Givanildo Vieira de Sousa was immediately identifiable as an incredible Hulk.

The Brazil forward rose to prominence after his move from Tokyo Verdy to FC Porto in 2008. A gifted athlete from a humble background, Hulk struggled to establish himself in his teenage years as he was passed from club to club in both Brazil and Portugal. Eventually making his debut with Vitoria in 2004, Hulk would make only two substitute appearances for the Brazilian side - both in defeats - before relegation.

He was not put off, though, instead boosted by his taste of first team football. "At that point I knew I could make it," he later told FourFourTwo. Keen to prove just that, the much-travelled youngster was soon on the move again.

Hulk was still just 18 years old when he landed in Kanagawa, Japan, to play for Kawasaki Frontale and his debut season, in 2005, was a mixed affair. The young forward made eight J1 League appearances by mid-July and scored a superb late winner, too, away to Jubilo Iwata as Frontale tasted victory for the first time in two months.

Yet, Hulk failed to build on that promising start and would not play again in the league until November. He ended the season with two Emperor's Cup goals, but, considered too raw, he was sent on loan to J2 side Consadole Sapporo for the following campaign. He's not stopped scoring since.

The opening months at his new club served as a microcosm for much of Hulk's career in Japan. A fine free-kick secured the three points on his debut against Sagan Tosu, but his home bow was marred by a foolish red card as he lashed out at multiple opponents in a frustrating defeat. Although Hulk netted on his return after a three-game ban, his ill discipline would again cause problems as two yellow cards in quick succession - both for dissent - saw him sent off as Consadole lost to Kashiwa Reysol, having earlier lit up the match with a stunning individual strike.

Hulk did then hit form following another suspension for yellow card accumulation, firing eight goals in nine games. Still too easily riled though, the last of those matches saw the Brazilian improbably pick up his third red card of the season, again against Kashiwa. Once more, a three-game ban was in the post.

Finally, with the season rapidly drawing to a close, Hulk showed why his temper was worth accommodating. He figured in each of the last 14 league games of the season, notching 12 times, and the exploits of one particularly barmy week unsurprisingly attracted attention.

Consadole trailed 1-0 away to Shonan Bellmare at half-time on September 23, before the visitors scored six goals after the break. Hulk grabbed four, with his simple tap-in early in the half followed by a penalty, a free-kick and a smart one-on-one finish all inside the last 10 minutes of the game. Just four days later, Consadole again netted six times after the interval to beat Tokushima Vortis as Hulk this time opened the scoring with a majestic, acrobatic right-footed volley.

However, while Consadole's campaign may have made compelling viewing for the neutral, they fell hopelessly short of promotion and things had to change. Coach Masaaki Yanagishita was dismissed, despite an impressive cup run, and instead came in the more defensive-minded Toshiya Miura, who spent the club's moderate budget on plugging a leaky back-line with Bruno Quadros. Hulk would not be returning.

Frontale still did not consider the forward ready for J1, so he was again sent out on loan - this time to the Kawasaki club's fierce rivals Verdy, Japan's most successful club, consigned to the second divison. He soon settled.

Hulk was now wearing green, not red and black, and the number nine, not 10, while his Afro had been replaced by a headband and a bundle of long hair that danced back and forth as he moved. The swashbuckling style once he crossed the white line, though, was unmistakable.

The new man formed a partnership with the giant Yuzo Funakoshi which immediately paid dividends, Hulk creating the opener for his team-mate just seconds into the opening game of the season, before netting twice himself - a blockbuster free-kick and a fine individual effort - and laying on another assist in a 5-0 win. Hulk continued to prove himself as both a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals as he added an array of strikes across the next four games. With Verdy unbeaten, attendances increased and their new man established himself as J2's leading marksman.

Then came a dip, with an injury to Funakoshi coinciding with the start of a seven-game losing streak. Mito Hollyhock, previously winless, triumphed 5-1 at Verdy and coach Rui Ramos was now under pressure, reportedly just one more defeat away from the sack. Both he and Hulk would contribute to an astounding turnaround.

Hulk's first hat-trick of the season saw off Kyoto Sanga in Verdy's next fixture and Ramos masterminded a change in formation that suited both the defence and his star man, who enjoyed a rip roaring run into the second half of the campaign.

While off-field reports varied, from talk of Hulk turning out for the Japanese national team to rumours the club were to be sold and would again be relocated, Verdy would not be distracted. They were sixth heading into September, but won nine of their 11 games over the next two months as Hulk scored 15 times to secure promotion back to J1. His tally for the season stood at 37 goals.

Predictably, Frontale were now interested in bringing the Brazilian back into the fold. The plan was to have Hulk link up with compatriot Juninho, the only other player to have previously matched the young star's J2 goal return. Hulk merchandise was made available and quickly snapped up. Frontale fans could not wait for the season to start, excited by their surely devastating duo.

But, within weeks, the campaign had hit a bum note. After just two games, Hulk, seemingly frustrated by Takashi Sekizuka's insistence on playing him out wide rather than through the middle, quickly made his mind up that Frontale was not for him. Bayern Munich were among a number of supposedly interested parties, but the forward was happy to return to Verdy.

The Tokyo club's first win of the campaign coincided with Hulk's second debut, but he then served a reminder of his frustrating limitations as he followed up a fine opener in the derby against FC Tokyo with a stoppage-time red card.

Although Hulk returned to a side in the bottom three, he inspired yet another strong run. Scoring in back-to-back wins over Yokohama F. Marinos and Consadole, he then struck a brace against Shimizu S-Pulse. All was well again for Verdy, but, with a month until the next J1 game, drama predictably followed Hulk once more.

His form was attracting admiring glances from Europe, with clubs from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and England all linked, but, back in Japan, ahead of a clash against Omiya Ardija, Hulk and team-mate Leandro went AWOL.

Despite a swift return, the incident had placed a strain on the relationship between the player and the club that could not be healed. Ramos had moved upstairs after promotion for Tetsuji Hashiratani to take charge and the new man was not impressed by Hulk's attitude. He was belatedly fined for his training camp no-show before a home defeat to Kyoto, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the end of this incredible chapter was near for Hulk and Verdy.

Hulk reacted angrily as he was substituted after netting in a 3-2 loss against Urawa Reds, then returned to Brazil and, while the club insisted he had departed only temporarily for the birth of his child, he would not play for Verdy again.

Paris Saint-Germain reportedly agreed a fee for Hulk's services, but the player was instead taken by the idea of playing for Porto, having identified the club on his earlier travels in Portugal. A transfer was confirmed on July 26 and the Brazilian left Verdy five points clear of the relegation places.

Verdy won 4-0 in their next game and then beat FC Tokyo away in the derby a fortnight later to climb to 10th, but they would taste victory only once more in the remaining 12 games of the season. They paid the price for cutting adrift their key man.

Meanwhile, Hulk was a star in Europe. The comic-book nickname given by his father to Givanildo the boy, befit the extraordinary talents of Givanildo the man. Two Portuguese titles were followed by a Russian title with Zenit, before, in 2016, Hulk moved on to China's Shanghai SIPG.

Hulk has proven previously that he can be a driving force with little support from his team-mates, but that won't be necessary in Shanghai. The supporting cast is strong, with the brilliant Wu Lei, a one-club man, dovetailing perfectly with the club's other samba sensations in Oscar and Elkeson.

Having been consistently linked with the Premier League and Chelsea throughout his career, many will accuse Hulk of choosing money over success. The 30-year-old can, though, claim to have wowed crowds in the most populous cities of both Japan and China, further establishing some of Brazil's favourite footballing outposts.

He's done alright.

By IBWM writer Ben Spratt

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