SINGAPORE - Under the influence of his football-mad father, Kodai Tanaka grew up watching Yokohama F. Marinos play in the J-League, and the image of a footballer soaring to head in the ball was seared into his impressionable young mind.
The Albirex Niigata striker told The Straits Times: "I thought heading was very cool, so at home, I had my parents and grandparents throw the ball at me and I practised returning the ball straight to them with my head."
This early routine helped Tanaka master the art of heading so much so that while he is not the tallest of strikers at 1.76m, seven out of his 12 Singapore Premier League (SPL) goals have come from headers. He is just one behind Tampines' Boris Kopitovic in the Golden Boot race.
His goals have come in spurts. He scored in six out of 11 games, including four headers in a 6-0 win over Balestier Khalsa and a hat-trick (two headers) in an 8-2 victory over Geylang International. But the 22-year-old fancies his chances of grabbing his first goal against Lion City Sailors when the SPL's top two teams meet at Jalan Besar on Friday (June 24).
"I'll score and help the team win the match," a confident Tanaka told ST as he prepared to meet the SPL's best defence, one that has kept five clean sheets and conceded just eight goals in 11 games.
He added: "My short-term goal is to lead the team to victory by contributing as many goals as I can. My medium-term goal is to win the SPL and the top scorer award. In the future, I aim to play in the J-League.
"For the Sailors game, it will boil down to whichever team has the better offence. They may have a six-point lead, but we treat this as a challenge. If we win this match, our chances in the title race will greatly increase so we want to make sure we come out winners."
Praised by Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga for his off-the-ball movement and high work rate in offence and defence, Tanaka is driven by his sense that he has yet to make his mark in the sport. He came through the ranks of the Marinos youth team and then Tokai University Kofu High School and Takushoku University before being picked up by Albirex.
He missed his team's 2-1 loss to the Sailors in the Community Shield due to quarantine, and played just one half in the 2-0 defeat by Tanjong Pagar United in their first SPL match.
Tanaka said: "Until today, I was never really able to have a particularly outstanding career or achieve anything notable in Japan. There were times when I wasn't able to play, and even when I did, I would be injured at times when I was needed the most.
"I feel I have experienced more setbacks and difficulties than most people, and there were difficult times when I wanted to quit. But thanks to the support of my family, friends and coaches, I was able to persevere and achieve my goal of becoming a professional footballer."
Things are also looking up for Tanaka because his outgoing personality has driven him to go out into the community to immerse in the local culture.
The chicken rice-loving Japanese also has a new partner in crime after Ilhan Fandi joined the club in May. Already, the duo have exchanged assists in their last two matches.
Ilhan said: "We first met when we were the last few players to take the yo-yo (fitness) test at the start of the season, so we were pushing each other and we kept in touch on Instagram.
"We have the same mindset - we want to work hard and score a lot of goals. Kodai is a humble, fun and laid-back guy, but on the pitch, he knows what he wants and is very clinical."
Kodai added: "We have become friends who can talk about anything, and our performances will no doubt be instrumental to Albirex winning."
Young Lions v Balestier (June 25, 5.30pm)
The Tigers got their first win of the season in a topsy-turvy 4-3 victory when the two teams last met, but have lost their last five matches.
The Young Lions may have disappointed at the SEA Games, but Tuesday's spirited 2-2 draw against Geylang is a boost, and they can move off the bottom temporarily with a win at Jalan Besar.
Geylang International v Tanjong Pagar (June 26, 5.30pm)
The Eagles have a fairly strong starting XI and played some decent football but are in the midst of an inexplicable 11-game winless run typified by how they threw away a 2-0 lead against the Young Lions on Tuesday.
Motivated by the possibility of moving up to second if they better Albirex's result, the Jaguars will look to pounce.