The Japanese erasmus

Mid-2011. We’re almost coming into Summer. Same YouTube trip, looking for Japanese players to discover, since I was just re-approaching Japanese club football after a long time. Meanwhile, though, the server points me towards a strange video.

There’s a kid with a Barcelona shirt. He plays for the youth sector of the Catalan club and no one has ever heard of him, if it wasn’t for that heavy tag: “Japanese Messi”. It’s probably because of his reflexes, his skills in bringing up the ball and dribbling every possible opponent. Of course, referments to Captain Tsubasa keep flowing, but you can see there’s something behind the useless hype.

That kid is Takefusa Kubo. He was only 10 years old back then, but the people who discovered him in a FC Barcelona youth camp in Yokohama weren’t nothing short of praises:

“The best of those kids, by far – said Oscar Hernandez, his trainer at Alevi D –. I remember how I was impressed by him. The best player of that camp was awarded a trip to Barcelona and then we decided to follow his growth”.

An absolute investment for the club, with the young Takefusa even speaking a little of Spanish. You would have probably thought of another wonder kid ready to disappear when things get tough. Takefusa Kubo, though, doesn’t seem to belong to that category. And Japan played a massive part in making him the player he’s today, the same who is owning J. League despite being a 17 years-old kid.

Why he’s back

Born in 2001 in Kawasaki, Kubo was selected in August 2011 to play in La Masia and grew under Barcelona’s care. In his first season for the Alevin C, he was the top-scorer with 74 goals in 30 matches: a massive number, but nothing unheard of (just look at Micheal Owen’s number before shining with Liverpool). Everything seemed to go pretty well for this gifted kid.

After all these efforts, you would also say that’s strange seeing him back to Japan. The point there was never a chance, at all. After four years in Barcelona, the club was found guilty by FIFA: apparently, the Catalans violated international rules about transfer policies for U-18 players. Nothing new, unfortunately; but this made Kubo unavailable for a different development in his career.

This basically forced his return home, a return that Kubo probably didn’t have in his plans. A return that saw him jumping the ship to the other side of the Tama River, playing for FC Tokyo. Despite no one saw him playing in Japan, the hype was real: having featured for Barcelona, this put Kubo in a different position, way ahead of many talented Japanese footballers.

Everyone immediately felt this was a temporary return, just like an Erasmus for a student abroad. Takefusa Kubo is Japanese, but it probably didn’t feel like this given his stint to Barcelona at such a young age. Seeing him back to Japan, actually featuring in J. League and with a pro-club, gave fans a chance to taste themselves if this kid was the real deal.

Oh, little did we know.

J3 football, but still…

A slow growth

In 2016, FC Tokyo were just under a new management: after Massimo Ficcadenti left, Hiroshi Jofuku came back, but his second reign with the capital’s club didn’t work. Yoshiyuki Shinoda didn’t work as someone hoped and the squad was in shambles. To get by until the end of 2017, the board change manager again, with Takayoshi Amma just surviving the season.

In all of this, Takefusa Kubo made immediately clear that playing with kids wasn’t an option anymore. FC Tokyo field him with their U-18 side, but the former Barcelona-prodigy – who, by the way, was playing football with kids two-three years older than him – proved that he was already beyond that level. FC Tokyo won back-to-back U-18 titles and Kubo hoped to progress.

Meanwhile, the club opted to register him as a pro-player and send him to the U-23 side, that in 2016 was featuring in J3 League for the first time ever. And on November 5, 2016, a crowd of 7,653 at Komazawa Park Stadium was eager to see the professional debut of the next big thing in Japanese football. He also broke a record, becoming the younger player to ever feature in a pro-football match in Japanese history.

The pitch isn’t remotely good for a football match, but the excitement is there.

It was just a glimpse (three appearances, no one for a full game or a starter), but it was enough to spark the curiosity. In 2017, Kubo mainly featured with U-23 team, even scoring his first pro-goal against Cerezo Osaka U-23. He then scored a second against Gamba Osaka U-23 in November, but most of all he was given some chances of featuring on the first team.

Kubo made a couple of appearance during J. League Cup and most of all debuted in J1 League at the end of a terrible season. First 23 minutes in an away defeat in Hiroshima, then 10 minutes on the last matchday of the season, closed with a 0-0 home draw against Gamba Osaka. Which, accidentally, is the team of his next manager, who’s also the current one and a good part of his maturation despite being 17 years-old.

Signs of greatness

That growth has been evident also through displays with Japan’s youth teams. Kubo was dominant in the continental stage, even underage, and he was good on the world scenario, playing first the U-17 World Cup and then being called for the U-20 WC in South Korea. He was basically a super-sub, but he was already decisive on his first appearance against South Africa with an assist.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo there had been a change. Kenta Hasegawa became the manager of the club, with a different and expert approach to change the future of a crumbling club. This move was beneficial also for Hasegawa, who won everything with Gamba Osaka, but whose fans couldn’t stand anymore his cycle, probably closed already after 2016 season. So, a chance for both parts to start over.

Somehow, it worked. FC Tokyo had a blistering start in 2018 season, when they were the runners-up of the league for many weeks, being in the Top 3 for 17 matchdays. From July, the season was substantially screwed, with Hasegawa’s boys winning only two out of the last 14 matches. It seemed like Gamba’s 2017 season over again, but it wasn’t, because the turnout of this year has been radically different.

First J1 League’s goal with FCT, a winner against Jubilo.

At the two weeks-break for Copa América, FC Tokyo are clear at the top of the table with 33 points, losing only once and hammering every possible opponent at home. The Ajinomoto Stadium became a fortress (eight straight wins) and there’s no case against FC Tokyo topping the table, because they’re a solid team. There is no star, but maybe because the real star here is Take himself.

In 2018, the season was contrasting. Kubo proved himself to be too good for J3 (three goals in 10 matches), but there wasn’t any space in first team, with the kid mostly featuring in J. League Cup. Without a cap in the senior’s squad, Kubo opted for a loan at Yokohama F. Marinos, where he played more and even found the first goal in J1. After five games, he came back to FC Tokyo, where plans changed.

Surrounded by many expert players in J. League – captain Keigo Higashi, striker Diego Oliveira, Akihiro Hayashi, Kensuke Nagai, Masato Morishige, with also rising profiles like Kento Hashimoto and Sei Muroya –, Kubo gave his best, free from any tactical chain, even if Hasegawa is using him as a link between midfield and the forwards. While he’s starting as right midfielder in the 4-4-2, he’s actually a decentered “10”, a winger, the link for Nagai and Oliveira.

The final leap

Despite he’ll turn 18 in a few days, there’s no doubt Takefusa Kubo will be one of the best players of Japanese history. It might be risky to declare this now (do you remember Usami bossing J. League and then living on the bench in Germany?), but his potential has been analyzed for many years and it’s there, you can’t deny it.

The question now is another one: can Kubo impose himself in Europe? Can he virtually go back to Barcelona and conquer the world, maybe even dreaming of being the real heir of Lionel Messi’s throne? Tough to say. I’d say impossible due to Leo’s place in the history of football. But there’s a point to crack here.

Not bad against the defending champions in the opener of 2019 season.

If he’ll go back to Europe (this isn’t still clear), Kubo won’t have to overcome a linguistic hurdle, because he speaks a decent Spanish. He won’t have to work too much on his technique, rather on his understanding of the game and on his muscular strength (yeah, that gracile figure may not be enough to win it all in Europe). With that talent and the communication skills, half of the work is already done.

The final leap won’t be easy for Kubo, who might have become accustomed to the unbelievable attention in his regards, but he’s still A 17 YEARS-OLD (sometimes I have to remind myself this concept) and needs space to grow freely, without feeling trapped by his golden skills. In a few days, he’ll certainly play his first matches with Japan national team, whom he might appear also on Copa América.

We don’t know if this home game against Oita Trinita will be remembered as a send-off match, a good-bye. Will this winning brace and this unbelievable play on Rei Matsumoto be the last flashes in Japanese club football? Surely, though, this Summer will be a decisive one for his career and his life; this Japanese Erasmus, somehow, served the purpose of making this experience unforgettable.

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