Tanaka comes full circle
After scoring own goal on S.League debut, Albirex fullback is now poised for title glory
He left his hometown of Hiroshima and travelled over 7,520km to Singapore to pursue his dream of becoming a footballer.
Ninety-two minutes into his debut as a professional, Albirex Niigata left back Naofumi Tanaka could have been forgiven for cursing his luck and wondering if it was all worthwhile.
In what was ultimately a 3-2 win for Albirex over Brunei DPMM in their Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League season-opener, Tanaka suffered the ignominy of scoring a debut own-goal in comical fashion, inadvertently deflecting the ball into his own net after goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa sent a clearance straight at him.
Bursting out into laughter at being reminded of the incident, Tanaka gave his own interpretation, and a positive one at that, of that experience.
"I actually thought it was very lucky that something like that happened to me, because it's not often we see something like that happen," the affable 22-year-old told The New Paper.
"I thought it was actually a good sign and that it symbolised that we would have luck for the season."
Whether it be through fortune or his own efforts, Tanaka has hardly looked back on that inauspicious start eight months on.
Having established himself as arguably the competition's best fullback, his sterling displays have also been a key factor behind the White Swans' seemingly unstoppable quest to be crowned S.League champions for the first time in their 13-year history.
Victory over Hougang United tonight will be enough for them to seal the title with two games to spare, with Tanaka admitting he sometimes has to pinch himself at how his maiden year as a professional has gone.
The all-action defender, who previously played college football at Osaka Kyoiku University, revealed: "Not in my wildest imagination did I think I would find myself in this situation.
"It's a big pleasure for me to enjoy this opportunity to challenge for the S.League title, especially since it's the most important piece of silverware in Singapore.
"I'm just so happy for this chance in my first year as a professional footballer."
While the big goal for many Albirex players is showcasing enough of their abilities to warrant a return to Japan's top divisions, which the likes of Bruno Castanheira and Musashi Okuyama both accomplished, a number of them often end up earning moves to other S.League clubs as part of their foreign contingent.
Based on his accomplished displays this year, it is not unthinkable that either scenario could play out for Tanaka.
For now, however, he is determined not to rest on his laurels as he aims to fulfil his full potential.
"People may say I've been a good player or that I've done well this season, but I'm actually not fully satisfied with my play," Tanaka added.
"A lot of players my age are playing well in Japan, or even in Europe, and I want to be like them.
"I have to keep on training and developing in order to improve as this is only the beginning for me."
"A lot of players my age are playing well in Japan, or even in Europe, and I want to be like them."
– Albirex Niigata left back Naofumi Tanaka (above)