Takefusa Kubo has made an immediate impact since joining Real Madrid. His debut against Bayern Munich on Sunday has been acclaimed by the press in Spain and reinforced comparisons made with another gifted No. 10, Leo Messi. There will be sterner tests than a pre-season game on tour in North America to come, but some of Kubo's similarities with the Argentinian—his short stature, his ball control—are inescapable.
"He reminds one of Messi, the way he can pull away with the ball from defenders. He's very direct, and he can do unusual things, but it's unfair to compare him to Messi, possibly the greatest player in history—to put that weight on his shoulders," says Miguel Angel Lara, a journalist with Marca who is covering Real Madrid's tour in the United States.
"More than his technical ability, what impresses me the most is his mentality. He's very mature. Against Bayern, he looked like a player who has been playing a long time with Real Madrid. It's not normal for a kid of 18 years of age, who comes from Japan, a country and a culture which is so different to Spain's [look so comfortable]. It's true he spent a few years in Barcelona, but it's still a big change for him.
"Normally players his age are shy like, say, Karim Benzema when he first joined Real Madrid in 2009. This guy, no. He looks for the ball. He plays like he's still playing with a bunch of kids. He doesn't show any signs of inferiority. He's brave. He never looks to pass backwards. He's always on the front foot. This is important. He's a guy with a lot of personality."
Kubo, who signed with Real Madrid in mid-June, has previous with Spain; he joined Barcelona's youth academy in 2011. Oscar Hernandez, who worked as a coach with Barca from 2007 until 2017, was tracking him for a few years before Kubo enrolled at La Masia and had no doubts about recommending him to the club. His qualities were obvious.
"He has the three qualities you look for in a player—rapid decision-making in reduced space, the ability to create space for teammates and his speed; his movement into open spaces is incredible," says Hernandez.
"He's also a player who is versatile. He's chameleonic. His usual position is on the right wing, with an ability to cut inside, but he can also play in midfield or centre-forward. He's got a good left foot. He knows how to take advantage of a situation.
"He can adapt to different styles too. He was schooled at La Masia to play possession-based football—to know how to occupy space, to know where the ball will arrive, to generate numerical superiority, to create more options for passing, short and long. On the other hand, he's good at quick transitions—the kind of play that Real Madrid favours—because he's fast and he's got good control. He's an intelligent footballer."
At La Masia, Kubo excelled. In the 2012-2013 season, he was the top scorer in his age group, bagging 74 goals in 30 games, but the ban Barcelona incurred by FIFA for illegally signing underaged players from overseas meant he had to return to Japan, where he joined FC Tokyo, in 2015. Barcelona kept tabs on him and looked to be in pole position to sign him once he turned 18 in June 2019, but Real Madrid snatched him from under their noses.
"Barca lost Kubo because they didn't have an agreement with him—not a financial one or a sporting one," says Hernandez. "Between all the people that had to agree about him at Barcelona, there wasn't any agreement for different reasons. So the relationship Kubo had for several years with the club was broken. The player studied offers from other European clubs, and it was the one from Real Madrid that was the most interesting one for him.
"It's a pity Barcelona [missed out] on him. I think he is a player made for playing at Barca. He was formed at the club's cantera [youth academy]. He had everything to be a success at Barcelona—he knew the club, the city, the language. He learnt how to play the club's specific position game. When he returned to Japan, we tracked him. I had been watching out for him since 2008. So of course it's a shame."
There is a fever brewing in Japan about his progress at Real Madrid, which is building on his impressive performances for Japan in June's Copa America. Clips of him scoring goals in Real Madrid's training sessions are going viral all before he has made his competitive debut with the club.
Kubo has shown remarkable maturity so far, though, in handling the expectations that swirl around him. It's something that has struck Sean Carroll, a journalist who has been covering Japanese football for a decade.
"He's very self-assured," says Carroll. "Every now and again players come through like Nakata or Keisuke Honda who are confident like Kubo, but usually they're fairly shy. They look uncomfortable under the glare of the media. They seem happy to play along with the hierarchy, and avoid stepping out of line, but whenever I've seen Kubo he always seems sure of himself.
"I remember the media gave him this nickname 'Kubo Kun'—kun is an affectionate name given to male children. Sergio Aguero, for example, has 'Kun Aguero' on his shirt, which comes from watching a Japanese manga cartoon on television when he was a kid. But when the press started calling him 'Kubo Kun,' he came out and said, 'Will you stop referring to me as that? I'm in the first-team squad. I'm a regular player. Can you use the [honorific] "senshu" instead, the same as with other players?' He was probably about 16 or 17 at the time. It stood out that he had that self-confidence. He's always seemed nonplussed by the excitement around him. It doesn't seem to affect him."
There is a fork in the road ahead. Unless Kubo does something really explosive in a month of pre-season friendlies—like, for example, the way a young Marco Asensio muscled his way into Real Madrid's first-team squad in the summer of 2016—there is no room for Kubo to play La Liga football with Real Madrid next season. Zinedine Zidane's squad is already top-heavy with attacking players, most notably the club's marquee signing, Eden Hazard.
Both Hernandez and Lara believe Kubo should be loaned out to another Spanish premier division club to further his development, but Zidane might choose to play him in the club's reserve team, Castilla, which is coached by club legend Raul.
"There's not space in the squad for Kubo at the moment," says Lara. "Raul would prefer him in Castilla, and Zidane as well would like to keep him close. If he performs really well, they could promote him like what happened with Vinicius last season.
"The problem with Castilla is that they play in Second Division B in Spain—against teams with a lot of veterans, players looking for a fight. They're very aggressive. He would have a bullseye on his back. The games are really hard. They are played on bad pitches, especially in winter. Kubo has too much skill to play at that level. He'd get more protection playing on loan in the premier division at a club like Valladolid or Espanyol, which have been good places for Real Madrid players to develop and to gain confidence."
Real Madrid is a tough place—probably the toughest club in the world—to make it as a professional footballer. Carroll cites the case of Martin Odegaard, the Norwegian prodigy who was signed by Real Madrid in a multi-million-euro deal to much fanfare as a 16-year-old in 2015. Several years later, he has yet to convince Real Madrid he has what it takes. He will spend another season out on loan in 2019-20—this time at Real Sociedad—part of a never-ending odyssey away from the Bernabeu. "It's a cautionary tale," says Carroll.
Kubo might be made of sterner stuff. He has already made his mark at every one of his stations. He's shown ambition in joining Real Madrid. Now for the next stage.
"It's a beautiful story so far, Kubo's," says Hernandez. "Let's see where it takes him."
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