Anyone who saw Brazilian striker Hulk terrify defenses during his 3 1/2 years in the J. League knew he was destined for greater things, but the speed with which his star has risen since moving to Europe last summer is remarkable nonetheless.
Now, as he attempts to lead Porto past Manchester United in their Champions League quarterfinal on Wednesday, he has the chance to indelibly stamp a name few outside Japan had previously heard of onto the world’s consciousness.
After moving to Kawasaki Frontale as a teenager in 2005, Hulk — as his name would suggest — swept through the J. League like a force of nature.
A one-year loan at second-division Consadole Sapporo yielded 25 goals in 38 games, while another loan in J2 the following season, this time at Tokyo Verdy, saw the striker hit an incredible 37 in 42 matches.
Opposing teams just could not deal with Hulk’s raw power and explosive running, and when he returned to Frontale at the start of 2008, the stage was set for an all-out assault on the first division.
After just two games in Kawasaki’s colors, however, Hulk walked out following a row with the club’s management. The striker then returned to Verdy to score seven goals in 13 appearances, but just when it looked like he had found a spiritual home to settle in, tempers flared and he was off again.
When two-time European champion Porto came calling, it was inevitable that Hulk would leave Japan. What was more surprising was just how quickly he has established himself as one of the most talked-about players in Europe.
A stunning performance against Atletico Madrid in the first leg of Porto’s Champions League second-round tie brought comparisons with a young Ronaldo in the Spanish press, and Brazil national team manager Dunga has also talked up the 22-year-old’s talents.
Almost exactly a year ago, however, the compliments were not so forthcoming. Red-carded as Verdy conceded a last-minute goal to lose to FC Tokyo on April 12, club manager Tetsuji Hashiratani warned the striker still had much to learn.
“Hulk tired himself out too quickly today,” he said. “He took too many touches of the ball, and he needs to conserve his energy more wisely.”
The demands of the Champions League will certainly help smooth those rough edges, and it can only benefit a player who too often tried to do everything on his own that he now has teammates good enough to help shoulder the burden.
Hulk’s sudden impact has no doubt left Europeans wondering what he was doing in Japan in the first place. The J. League is often regarded as something of a sanctuary for journeymen Brazilians, and the tag is not entirely without justification.
But the relationship that clubs have fostered with Brazilian teams over the years means more and more quality youngsters are seeing Japan as an attractive option, and Hulk’s success will not have gone unnoticed in his homeland.
If he can play his part in sending defending champions United out of the Champions League on Wednesday, it will do his reputation — and the J. League’s — no harm at all.