Thursday 31 October 2019, 06:00

Ozu: I turned down Brazil because I fell in love with Japan

  • Ozu Moreira describes falling in love with Japanese culture and cuisine

  • The defender discusses reaching 100 goals for Japan

  • Ozu says Japan’s target is a medal in Paraguay

“I started playing beach soccer when I was six years old, on the Copacabana,” Ozu Moreira told “I played against the likes of Rafinha, Boquinha, Mauricinho. I always dreamed of becoming a beach footballer.”

Every kid kicking balls on the seraphic sands of Rio de Janeiro fantasised about playing for Brazil. Rafinha, Boquinha and Mauricinho do just that. Ozu, however, had a dream with a difference.

“My dream was never to play for A Seleção,” he explained. “It was to play abroad, to learn a new culture, to be able to live there playing beach soccer.

“I played in Germany for a little while and then got an offer to play in Japan. As soon as I arrived in Japan in 2007, I fell in love with the culture, the affection the Japanese people have for foreigners, the respect.

"I’d never eaten sushi, these things, but it wasn’t hard for me to like it – Japanese food is really good. Now, whenever I go abroad, I’m always itching to get back to Japan because I’m so accustomed to life here.”

It may take over 30 hours to get from Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo, and Ozu may have been bereft of the exposure of playing international beach soccer, but such was his talent that Brazil soon came calling.

“Before I became Japanese, I received a call-up from the Brazilian national team,” he said. “I was happy with the recognition, but I’d already fallen in love with Japan, my heart was already Japanese.

“Everyone said to me, ‘If you play for Brazil, you’ll win multiple World Cups’, and I obviously would love to win the Beach Soccer World Cup. But I preferred to fight to become Japanese and represent Japan.

“To become Japanese, I needed to become fluent in Japanese and spend five years living here. If I’d played for Brazil, I would have played in more World Cups – I missed two.”

Osmar, as he was born, became Ozu and Japanese in 2012. His wait to play in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup was worth it.

At Tahiti 2013, the 1.90m defender scored two long-range scorchers in a dramatic 4-3 victory over Côte d'Ivoire that booked Japan a quarter-final against Brazil, in which he performed palatially in a thrilling 4-3 defeat. Ozu duly won the competition’s adidas Silver Ball.

Ozu is one of only two men to have made the Best Five at the Beach Soccer Stars awards four times – Brazil's Bruno Xavier has made all five editions – and he recently scored his 100th goal in his 93rd international. Naturally, it came from his “speciality”: a long-range free-kick.

“I wasn’t counting, but a little while ago the JFA informed me I had scored 90 goals,” he revealed. “I thought, ‘Wow’.

“Brazil score a lot of goals. Japan don’t score many goals, we’re more defensive. So for a defender to score 100 goals in fewer games, it was really special. Nobody had ever scored 100 goals for Japan. It was a really important milestone for me personally.

“But what made me happiest was that when I scored my 100th goal, all the players and the coach came and embraced me. It wasn’t just a milestone for me – it was a milestone for everyone. And to be loved by everyone here in Japan is so pleasing.

“I think I’ll play my 100th game for Japan in the World Cup. That will be another nice milestone.”

The Paraguay 2019 draw has pitted Japan against the hosts, Switzerland and USA in Group A.

“Paraguay are a very strong team with very good players,” Ozu said. “We’re going to play in their country against really passionate supporters. And they have a great coach in Guga. They’re one of the favourites to win the competition.

“It will be a really tough game for us, but it’s good because we’ll play in a packed-out stadium in front of all the world’s media and television. This excites us.

“Switzerland have great attacking ability and USA always make it difficult. It’s not the group of death like the one with Brazil and Portugal, but it’s a tough group. But I really believe in our national team. Our target is to win a medal.

“The big favourites are Brazil. They’re the best team in the world. All 12 of their players are excellent. You could change their entire starting team and they’d still have the same force. The best coach in the world is Gilberto.

“Then you have Russia, Portugal and Tahiti. And Paraguay have home advantage.”

The 33-year-old watched beach soccer fanatically growing up, and has played alongside and against the sport’s elite during his career.

“Benjamin is the most complete beach soccer player I’ve ever seen,” said Ozu. “He was so talented, but at the same time so objective. The most spectacular was Jorginho ‘Bicicleta’. He knew how to make the game a show. Junior Negao is up there too.

“And I’d have Bruno Xavier in the top five too. He’s also very complete. I watch him playing and I think, ‘I can learn this.’ Xavier, Rodrigo and Mao are three of the best players in the world today.

“Brazil will take some beating, but I’d love to repay the Japanese people for all they’ve done for me by helping Japan win the World Cup.”